Daisy Miller (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch

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Daisy Miller
Henry James, 1878
80 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September 2009

A novella and possibly the most accessible of James's works, Daisy Miller brought the author instant fame...along with a bit of controversy. There was the charge that his heroine was "an outrage on American girlhood."

Daisy epitomizes the James heroine—a fresh young American woman on European soil who, to her own detriment, defies strict social conventions. She belongs to the class of wealthy Americans who, having lived so long in Europe, are "Europeanized." They no longer hold to democratic ideals, eschewing an open, egalitarian society in favor of a rigidly hierarchical one. Their code insists on knowing one's place and behaving accordingly.

The very proper Mr. Winterbourne first meets Daisy (yes, pay attention to the symbolic nature of the names!) in Switzerland where he is smitten by her beauty and intrigued by her frankness. She's a charming flirt, alarmingly so—but does she knowingly flaunt the rules of proper society or is she simply oblivious to them? It's unclear. Winterbourne meets up with Daisy again in Rome, but by now she is a pariah in society.

It's uncertain what Winterbourne wants with Daisy; he himself is unsure. And her behavior remains a mystery. I think book clubs will have wonderful discussions parsing Winterbourne's desires and psychology—as well as the impetus behind Daisy's actions. Ultimately, we wonder, is it Daisy's story...or Winterbourne's?

See our Reading Guide for Daisy Miller.

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