AP Senior English
Assignment: James’ use of Ambiguity in Daisy Miller and theme
Ambiguity Conveys Theme in James’ Daisy Miller
In the novella, Daisy Miller by Henry James, the complexities of social conventions, gender stereotyping and conformity are exposed through the actions and words of the protagonists. Daisy Miller is the young woman who invites a multitude of speculation regarding her personality and behavior. James creates ambiguity around Daisy as an insightful glimpse into the harsh social expectations of the day. Daisy is outgoing and forthright, desires attention, and strays into an area that is considered unbecoming of a young woman traveling in Europe. Winterbourne acts a foil to Daisy’s character. His pragmatic approach to life skims the tightrope between a restricted and highly critical analysis of Daisy’s actions, and a desire to delve into her mind and world. The ring of characters that surround Winterbourne and Daisy serve to enhance James’ focus on the outdated circle of social fire which places anyone who does not conform to societal codes under a burning, magnifying glass of scrutiny. Through Daisy Miller, James uses ambiguity to delineate a multilayered personality which seeks to establish its voice amidst a sea of conjecture, criticism and conventionality.
Daisy Miller cannot be pigeonholed into a specific category of mindset and she embodies the ambiguity that James desires to convey in his exposure of gender and conventional stereotyping. Men and women are obliged to live by societal rules, “…a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely occurring conditions” (1169). When Winterbourne first encounters Daisy, he perceives her confidence and lack of embarrassment at talking to a strange man; her glance was, “…perfectly direct and unshrinking” (1170). These basic traits are what set Daisy Miller apart from her female counterparts. Winterbourne’s Aunt is generally holed up inside a room with a headache, and Mrs. Miller is deemed to be, “…a simple, easily managed person” (1180), who tires easily and who is “dreadfully nervous” (1177). Daisy is neither a recluse nor is she easily managed by anyone. Her given name of Annie is one which she rejects in favor of a name which represents something simple and pure with radiating white emanating from a large yellow circle. This symbol for joy and purity is represented in Daisy, a lovely, young, innocent woman who embodies a sun drenched heart which is open and inviting. Winterbourne, by comparison and name alone, is a stiff, cold and restricted persona. He is drawn to Daisy exactly for what she represents to him, an enigma and the opposite of himself. He has never encountered someone like her before and uses a number of adjectives to place her in a more understandable light. At first glance, he projects the term coquette upon her, however, Daisy does not directly endeavor to gain the attention and admiration of men, it happens effortlessly. While it is true that she is playful in her discourse with men, especially in the exchange with Eugenio and Winterbourne with, “Oh, I hoped you would make a fuss!...That’s all I want – a little fuss!” (1182), this is not a device which she uses insincerely. Winterbourne is puzzled by her ambiguous nature and her desire to incite him to interact with her, “I like to make you say those things! You’re a queer mixture” (1183). He simply cannot define her and this makes him uncomfortable, and it becomes the foil which James uses to define the era. Outspoken women who embrace every breathe of every day without falter must be, in Winterbourne’s limited vision, ignorant, coquettish, uncultured or audacious and he struggles to comprehend and balance Daisy’s apparent, genuine innocence with the description that his Aunt pins on Daisy with, “…hopelessly vulgar” (118 6). James devises a blunt commentary on social...