Daisy Miller: the Incongruity Between Reality and Appearance

The idea of subtext is a metaphor for the manner in which the European-American social circle in Europe misunderstands the true character of Daisy Miller. She is innocent and uncultured and incautious but the circle sees only the surface of her character and the actions that character takes. They imagine a member of their social circle, thus someone with the experience and knowledge to understand and exaggerate the mores and codes of the European culture, acting in the way that Daisy Miller does. They do not take the time to look beneath this pretense to find that she is naturally innocent, acting on impulse instead of caution and convention.

She rebels not by having a great knowledge of the rules which bind the society and consciously deciding to throw them out the window, but by being limited in her scope of experience and by refusing to change her natural ways in order to please a culture to which she does not belong. She oversteps even these bounds but not in the manner for which she will be ridiculed and rejected by her compatriots. The great theme of the disparity between reality and appearance is at its greatest strength in the relationship between Winterbourne and Daisy because of the conflict which roars inside of Winterbourne regarding the appearance he cannot overcome and the reality he cannot accept. He constantly asks himself, should she know better? Yet he does not realize that she does not know better and will ruin herself because of it.

Knowledge as evil versus inexperience as innocence: James explores the type of an American girl who is innocent of the knowledge of evil and immorality. However, she is immersed in an environment of an elusive evil, concentrated in Rome and symbolized mainly in the dark foreshadowing of Daisy’s ruin in the shadowed cavernous scene of the Colosseum. One better understands the hypocritical evil of the Euro-American social circle when they gossip about Daisy’s behavior through vespers at St. Peters, symbolic of the evil of their experience and knowledge. Daisy’s lack of knowledge and experience deceives Winterbourne who is incapable of seeing life through the lens of inexperience after leaving America. He thus fails to understand her inexperience as innocence.

Outward action versus inward meditation: This theme focuses on the problems of communication, especially in regards to the relationship between Daisy and Winterbourne, and the differences in types of character. Daisy is a character who reacts on impulse to the world around her and will say something or act without hesitation. Winterbourne, on the other hand, more representative of the European American circle, acts on pretense frequently and will often contain his feelings inwardly.

He meditates on Daisy’s character repeatedly, trying to decide how to view her, but usually overthinks the situation. Winterbourne attempts to apply the conventional rules he has accepted since leaving America to Daisy without realizing that she is not dissecting the world with the same meditating process that he undertakes.

Nature versus urbanity: A rather broad theme which acts as a vehicle to illustrate the conflicts between natural response and convention and social custom. Rousseau believed that natural man’s innocence and purity was destroyed by the rigid rules of formalized civil society. By referring to the Golden Age in chapter four, the reader is reminded of the philosophic notions of nature’s ruin at the hands of civilization. James is likely implying subtextually that Daisy’s position in a sort of Golden Age is a state of innocence and goodness, not something to be insulted or ridiculed by characters such as Mrs. Costello.

Daisy, as her name symbolizes, is simple and natural whereas her companion, the “beautiful Italian”, is an imitation of a gentleman, urbane and artificial. The urbanity symbolized in the formal civilized setting of Rome overwhelms the natural innocence of Daisy and she succumbs to harsh condemnation, incaution, and a lack of love. Nature overcomes urbanity in the end, as Giovanelli confesses Daisy’s innocence to Winterbourne.

Daisy Miller: Short Review

When Winterbourne first meets Daisy, he is willing to accept her for the vivacious young American girl she is. Although Daisy’s customs are not what are expected of young girls in European society, Winterbourne is charmed by Daisy and her original ideals. He defends Daisy to the aristocracy, claiming that she is just “uncultivated” and is truly innocent. As the story progresses, Winterbourne finds himself questioning Daisy’s true nature in comparison to the standards of European society. Winterbourne’s opinion of Daisy changes from acceptance to condemnation as his tolerance of cultural standards is clouded by the prejudices of the European aristocrats.

Upon their first meeting, Winterbourne is enchanted by Daisy Miller. She was a pretty American girl who was very fresh and different compared to the unmarried women of Europe. Although, at first, Winterbourne was bemused by Daisy’s talkative nature and wondered if she may have been a coquette, he deduced that Daisy was just acting in an American manner. Winterbourne found Daisy to be “extremely innocent” and “a pretty American flirt.”

Winterbourne’s aunt, Mrs. Costello, was the first person to begin fixing social prejudices in Winterbourne’s mind. When he mentioned the Millers, Mrs. Costello at once began to list all the horrible reasons that the Millers were not on the same social level as herself. As she dredged up gossip and talked of Daisy’s “intimacy with the courier,” Winterbourne began to make up his mind regarding Daisy. He felt that she was “evidently rather wild.” But, he still questioned his aunt’s reasoning, claiming that all American girls were flirts and therefore, it was to be expected of Daisy.

Weeks later, Winterbourne journeyed to Rome where the Millers were staying. He visited his aunt before finding Daisy in the city and Mrs. Costello, once again, talked about the Millers, especially Daisy, condescendingly. Winterbourne, again, defended them claiming, “they are very ignorant – very innocent only,” but not necessarily bad people.

When Daisy intended to go out walking to meet her Italian friend, Mr. Giovanelli, her mother and Mrs. Walker, an elite member of society, advised her against it. Daisy persisted, and “not wanting to do anything improper” convinced Winterbourne to walk with her until she found Mr. Giovanelli. Winterbourne agreed to chaperone her.

Upon observing Giovanelli, Winterbourne told Daisy that he “intends to remain with her”. Daisy retorts that she has “never allowed a gentleman to dictate to her or interfere with anything she did.” But she nevertheless walked happily between Winterbourne and Giovanelli. Winterbourne began to wonder if Daisy really was as innocent as she seemed because he felt that “a nice girl ought to know” she was being improper.

Mrs. Walker rode up in her carriage and persuaded Winterbourne to convince Daisy to join her because “fifty people have noticed her”. Winterbourne stated that Mrs. Walker was making “too much of a fuss about it” but Mrs. Walker felt that Daisy was ruining herself. Winterbourne claimed that Daisy was innocent. Daisy walked over to the carriage and Mrs. Walker asked her to get in. Daisy refused because she was “so enchanted just as she was”. Mrs. Walker said that walking with two men was not the custom in Rome and Daisy responded, “Well, it ought to be!” Finally, Daisy declared that she was improper and Mrs. Walker left with Winterbourne in Daisy’s place.

The next time Winterbourne spoke to Daisy was at Mrs. Walker’s party. Daisy tells him that she wouldn’t change her habits for the society. Winterbourne calls her a flirt, which Daisy regards as a compliment. Winterbourne tried to explain to Daisy that if she doesn’t change she would have to deal with the consequences, but Daisy shrugged off his advice. Upon leaving, Mrs. Walker snubbed Daisy and Winterbourne felt a twinge of pity for her.

Over the next few days, the entire elite class talked about how dreadful Daisy was for going “too far.” Winterbourne agreed with these comments, but he still felt pity for Daisy. Daisy was no longer invited to social gatherings and was ostracized from the society. When Winterbourne confronted her on the matter, she commented that, “they are only pretending to be shocked”.

When Winterbourne came across Daisy and Giovanelli in the coliseum at night, he finally gave up on Daisy. He realized that she was a reckless girl and did not worry about her reputation or her society. She “was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.” He was angry that he wasted so much time trying to understand Daisy, when her innocence was nothing more than an act.

Daisy was still talked about by the aristocrats, but Winterbourne no longer felt the need to defend her. A week later, Daisy died of a case of Roman Fever that she caught in the coliseum. Before she died, Daisy sent a message to Winterbourne explaining that there were no intimate attachments between Giovanelli and herself. Winterbourne disregarded the message.

A year later, Winterbourne was visiting his Aunt in Vevay. He began to think of Daisy and the injustice he caused her at the time of her death. He told his aunt that he had understood Daisy’s last message over the course of the last year but offered no explanation of what his epiphany was. He only told his aunt that she was right the year before about him “booked to make a mistake” regarding Daisy.

Daisy Miller was a young American girl who did not conform to traditional European dogmas. Winterbourne was at first accepting of these unusual ideas but as he was affected by the aristocratic society, he was no longer willing to understand Daisy’s nontraditional views.