Monday, March 7, 2011
Daisy Miller: Henry James
Ahhh, Henry James, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways... I couldn't possibly name all the things I love about James' works. Each has its own place in my heart for all different reasons. It's so hard to find writing that good anymore. And yet, I had somehow missed Daisy Miller. The young American girl for whom the book is named is one of the most alluded-to characters in fiction. On a bit of a whim I decided to pick up the slim novella that I purchased at a book sale some months back.
Henry James is a master at saying things without saying things, if you know what I mean. In Daisy Miller, James tells the short story of a young American woman who makes the acquaintance of a fellow American traveler, while in Vevey, Switzerland. The gentleman is Winterbourne who is introduced to Daisy by her young brother, Randolph. Winterbourne seems to be immediately taken with the beautiful young lady, despite his aunt. Winterbourne's aunt is one of a staple type of character in these old social commentary stories; Old, stolid, and wealthy, believing that the caste system is alive and well and ought to remain so. Winterbourne's aunt calls Daisy and her family every impoverished name in the book, thereby discouraging Winterbourne from making any advancements. And if that were the entire story, it would be a dull and predictable one without any real moral ending. However, we learn that it's not just dear old Aunty who is influencing Winterbourne, but Daisy herself. The innocent American girl turns out to be quite a flirt, balking at all the societally accepted norms regarding courtships. Daisy's brash dating habits and overt flirtatiousness give Winterbourne pause. And now I have to tell you ***SPOILER*** that Henry James rarely ends a short story with "...and they all lived happily ever after" and this one is no different. Ultimately, Daisy stays out one evening while in Rome with a charming Roman man, who makes Winterbourne a tad bit jealous. Daisy falls ill and dies before Winterbourne can make his move. She dies unmarried, and he never gets to tell her how much he loves her. Lose-lose.
This novella is fully titled Daisy Miller: A Study which is an appropriate title, no matter how you look at it. It is a study of the outgoing nature of innocent American Daisy Miller who gets herself into all kinds of trouble. She is the epitome of innocence in every description, but Daisy's actions are those of a woman loosing her wiles on every man in the vicinity. She makes for a perfect study of the American girl, caught between the stuffy, wealth-centric European society and the poor, working class American culture. I imagine my favorite ol' college English professor would have asked the obvious question--is Daisy truly innocent?
Daisy Miller may also be a study of romance. Things would have ended so differently if Winterbourne had only been a man of action. He lusted after her, but since it wasn't "proper", he attempted to court her in the traditional way. Courting Daisy seems like a waste of time. She's a fun-time kind of gal who just wants all the attention one can possibly lavish upon her. Winterbourne was either a weak man for listening to his aunt's advice, or he was a smart man who saw a flirt and chose not to engage her. Henry James doesn't give Witnerbourne any tags like "innocent", so it's hard to know what exactly we're supposed to think about him. For my two cents, I wanted him to take Daisy in his arms, tell her to stop behaving foolishly, and make her his wife. That probably says more about me than the book...
Bottom line? I still love love love Henry James. I do not, however, love these characters. I didn't find myself giving a fig about what happened to Daisy, and Winterbourne was such a milquetoast that I couldn't care about his future, either. I could write about all the things Henry James did right, but in light of this singular novel, I will simply say that I enjoyed Daisy Miller, but don't feel compelled to read it again.