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Essay: Book review essay: Daisy Miller, by Henry James

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  • Published: 18 September 2015*
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The novella ‘Daisy Miller’ features a free-spirited protagonist, Daisy Miller, who goes against all societal expectations found in Europe. This story contains morally ambiguous conflicts between individuals and society. This novella is a tale in which a strong, individual woman directly conflicts with her respective society, attempting to uphold independence while flouting societal rules and expectations, although in the end the society wins over the individual.
Henry James constructs a strong female individual who is very independent and does not care about societal norms of the country she is visiting. Daisy Miller is young and flirtatious. Daisy shuns the expectations of society and she lives for herself and no one else. It can be seen throughout the course of the novel when she goes to Chillon with Winterbourne alone, and later when she frolics the streets at night with Giovanelli. She is allowed to practice her art of flirting with men, but only for a while. Daisy dies of an attack of Roman Fever contracted at the Coliseum; more symbolically, her independence is lost because society and societal expectations triumphed over her individuality.
Many Europeans look down upon American travelers in Europe, especially when they do not follow the customs and culture of their country. The Miller family is much different from the stereotypical high class family found in Europe, but that does not affect the way they act. The family goes against the norms of European society especially in how they treat people of lower class than them. They are looked down upon because they treat their courier, Eugenio, like someone of equal status as them. Usually couriers are the lower class and live and sleep on the lower levels of the house; however, Eugenio sleeps on the same level and interacts with the Miller family like he is part of their family. Mrs. Costello is appalled that the Miller family treats their courier with familiarity, which none of the Europeans believe in. When Winterbourne tells Mrs. Costello about Daisy, you can see differences between the two societies already becoming very prevalent, “they are very common; they are the sort of Americans that one does one’s duty by not- not accepting” (17) Mrs. Costello feels very strongly about the Millers in a negative way. She refuses to be introduced to Daisy and tells Winterbourne that she should behave more like his cousins in New York. However Winterbourne has heard that his cousins are “tremendous flirts” (19). So in a way, the Miller family represents America and its characteristic free way of thinking and acting, whereas the Mrs. Costello and the other high class characters represent the stiff European way of thinking that is deeply rooted in tradition.
Daisy flirts with many different men, and she is unwilling to adapt to the culture and standards of Europe. When she goes for a walk with Giovanelli and Winterbourne, Mrs. Walker tells her to come home and get in the carriage because it is improper for her to be out in public walking with men. Daisy responds, “I never heard anything so stiff! If this is improper, than I am improper and you must give me up” (44). It is evident that Daisy really does not care about other cultures or others’ feelings, even Winterbourne’s when he asked her to get in she refused and stayed with Giovanelli. This is why she symbolizes America, because America values freedom of choice and everyone has different cultures and customs. She is not used to and does not feel the need to adapt to certain beliefs.
The Europeans and their desires represent societal aims and norms in the story. For example, Mr. Winterbourne embodies European society because he has “lived too long in foreign parts” (64) to be identified as a stereotypical American. Winterbourne is the opposite of Daisy. He represents the typical European thought and belief. He has the same generalizations and assumptions about Daisy that all the Europeans do; especially the European men, who see all American girls as flirts and uncultivated. When Winterbourne is describing her to Mrs. Costello he calls her “completely uncultivated, but she is wonderful pretty” (18). Daisy’s attitudes were frowned upon by the European culture and European Americans, such as Winterbourne. Differences in the social etiquettes of Americans and Europeans were accentuated when Daisy and Winterbourne interacted. When Winterbourne first met Daisy, she talked very freely as if she had known Winterbourne for quite some time. This catches Winterbourne off guard because in Europe it was not customary for men and women to talk so openly in public, especially when they did not know each other.
In the end, societal norms and expectations triumph over individuality which can be seen in Daisy’s death. Daisy also directly ignores the societal rules and expectations. She “never allow[s] a gentleman to dictate to [her], or to interfere with anything [she does]” (40), and she stubbornly clings to her independence, no matter if society lectures her or ignores her. Winterbourne, representing the old, degenerate, European society and tradition, judges her as “a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect” (59-60). He and the European society try to destroy her individuality by rejecting her motives as immoral. Daisy dies, symbolizing the individual losing to society, but her defeat is not complete. She preserves her personality, taking her frank independence to the grave, where she is buried in a “Protestant cemetery’ (63). As America was at this time period, Daisy was young and free. This eventually leads to Daisy’s downfall and death. She goes out at night to the Coliseum with Giovanelli, when she was warned not to, and she is infected Roman Fever. If she had listened to others instead of being self-centered and unwilling to adapt to the customs, she would have stayed alive and have been able to tell Winterbourne that she was not engaged. Winterbourne does not know if Daisy is really na??ve and nice or if it is a fa??ade. He listens to others’ opinions about her and holds Mrs. Costello’s opinion in high regard, although he does attempt to defend Daisy in front of others. Winterbourne wants to be able to characterize her as a stereotypical American, but he is having more trouble doing so as the story goes on.
In the story, European society is old, degenerate, traditional, and unable to comprehend differences to the norm and that is its Achilles’ heel. In this story Daisy and her family are a vehicle for uniqueness. Daisy Miller embodies independence and individuality and willfully retains it to the bitter end. Daisy sticks to her principles, maintaining her originality even to the death, regardless of the European society’s perceptions and judgments.

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