The Character of Daisy in Henry James' Daisy Miller
What is the purpose of Daisy in the novel Daisy Miller by Henry James? Why did James create such a appealing and confusing character? Since the publication of James's novel in 1878, Daisy has worn several labels, among them "flirt," "innocent," and "American Girl." Daisy's representation of an American Girl of the late 19th century is evident. Her free-spiritedness and individuality reflect the social movement of the American middle-class. The question of Daisy's innocence, however, remains unanswered. One of the most interesting aspects about Daisy is her distance from the reader. The reader is not given access to Daisy's inner thoughts or emotions. Instead, the reader has to observe Daisy through Frederick Winterbourne. Although Daisy's mind is a mystery, her relationship with Winterbourne reveals her true purpose in the novel. Daisy is a failed catalyst, or an agent of change. She offers Winterbourne spontaneity, freedom and love. In other words, through daisy, Winterbourne has an opportunity to change. But Winterbourne rejects her and thus Daisy fails as a catalyst. Ironically, by rejecting Daisy, Winterbourne fails himself.
One way in which Daisy fails as an agent of change is that she is a member of the newly rich American middle-class. Winterbourne, however, is a member of the European- American class who are, as Ian F. A. Bell notes, "only slightly less
'nouveau' (newly rich) than the mercantilist Millers" (Reeve 23). These European-Americans, represented by Winterbourne's aunt, reject Daisy and her family because they want to retain their higher position on the social ladder. Ironically, Daisy Miller may have been accepted by Mrs. Costello and her friends if she had behaved like them - rigid, controlled, and rejecting others lower on the social ladder. Henry James's Daisy, however, is a free-spirited individual who "ignores class structures and customary behavior...treating all she meets as equal human beings" (Hocks 33). At first Winterbourne is enchanted by Daisy's freshness and spontaneity. But eventually, under his aunt's influence, he begins to turn away from Daisy and the freedom she offers. He hesitates from thinking of her as pretty and charming to regarding her, as his aunt does, as "common" and "rather wild" (James 461).
One reason for Winterbourne's changing opinions about Daisy is that she associates with people of lower classes. She talks to chambermaids and couriers, for instance. But most unflattering is her friendship with the Italian music-master, Mr. Giovanelli, who is socially unacceptable to Winterbourne and his aunt. Daisy's close friendship with Giovanelli lessens her chances of being accepted by Mrs. Costello and her social group. Daisy's relationship with Giovanelli leads to Winterbourne's certainty that she is "wanting in a certain indispensable delicacy" (James 477). Therefore, in Winterbourne's eyes, Daisy is not worthy of his respect.
Another way in which Daisy's free-spiritedness fails to change Winterbourne is that it threatens his masculinity. According to critic Robert Weisbuch's article "Winterbourne and the Doom of Manhood in Daisy Miller," Winterbourne is a misogynist, or hater of women, who "blame(s) evil on women" (Pollak 83). In this case, the evil Daisy represents is of the newly rich American middle-class. Daisy is part of the "commercially energetic America" that threatens Winterbourne's manhood (Pollak 69). Winterbourne is idle and jobless in Europe, unlike the thriving middle-class Americans in the late 1800's. Furthermore, it is almost certain that he depends upon his aunt for financial assistance. For instance, Winterbourne is "more attentive than those who, as (his aunt) said, were nearer to her" (James 461). This attention seems to be rooted in his dependence for her fortune. Winterbourne's financial ties to his...