Daisy Miller by Henry James

October 22, 2009

daisy miller Plot summary (with spoilers): Winterbourne is a rich American expatriate who spends most of his time “studying” in Switzerland or traveling around the continent. This really means that he goes to parties, drinks too much Scotch, and smokes too many Black and Mild cigars. While at Vevey, he meets a fellow American, a young woman named Daisy Miller. Daisy is beautiful, rich, and unlike all the European girls Winterbourne has been around for so many years. He’s captivated by Daisy, despite warnings from his aunt Mrs. Costello that Daisy is a “loose” woman who doesn’t care about her reputation. Mrs. Costello refuses to be introduced to Daisy, claiming that the Millers are common, vulgar people who are unacceptable in proper society.

Nevertheless Winterbourne continues to spend time with Daisy while in Vevey. They even end up going to Chillon Castle together, unaccompanied by a chaperon, which was apparently a big deal in those days. This event served to solidify Mrs. Costello’s initial impressions about Daisy being loose, but Winterbourne doesn’t really care. Unfortunately, he has to go away for a while, but promises to catch up with Daisy again at Rome in the near future.

Winterbourne keeps his promise, but is shocked and disappointed to learn that Daisy has been spending her time in Rome in the company of a Mr. Giovanelli, whom most people in Winterbourne’s circle dismiss as a crude fortune hunter. Daisy and Giovanelli carry on as though they’re engaged, which causes Winterbourne to start changing his mind about the girl. He gives up on her completely when he enters the Colosseum one night to discover Daisy and Giovanelli there alone. Winterbourne warns Daisy that she’ll get sick being out so late at night in the cold, damp weather, but she merely laughs him off.

Sure enough, a few days later Daisy catches Roman fever (malaria) and dies soon thereafter. At the funeral, Giovanelli confides to Winterbourne that Daisy was indeed innocent, that their relationship hadn’t become intimate yet. Furthermore, Winterbourne receives a note that Daisy wrote before her death, indicating that she was never engaged to Giovanelli and that she did indeed care what Winterbourne thought about her despite outward appearances to the contrary. Winterbourne merely tells his aunt that she was right about him potentially making a huge mistake, and returns to Geneva to resume his carefree lifestyle.

Liked:

  • The novella started off interestingly enough. I was intrigued by Daisy, her brother Randolph, and Winterbourne, and was looking forward to having their relationship fleshed out more fully.
  • This was a very short novella, so there was no time for boring, pointless scenes. The action moved along quite rapidly, which suited me just fine.

Disliked:

  • There simply wasn’t enough time to develop the characters fully, so I found that I didn’t care about them very much. Daisy’s death had zero impact on me because I hadn’t built up any feelings for her by that time. Nor did I feel anything for Winterbourne or any of his disappointments regarding Daisy and Giovanelli.
  • The ending was rather abrupt, what with Daisy catching the dreaded Roman fever and dying shortly thereafter. What were readers supposed to take away from her story? She was really innocent in the end, according to Giovanelli anyway, so was this supposed to be something along the lines of “only the good die young”? I’m afraid I didn’t understand the point of this novella.

Rating:
Daisy Miller, though just a short novella, is typical of Henry James’ fascination with Americans abroad. In that regard the novella is a good introduction to themes that James takes up in other works, including Portrait of a Lady. But judging this piece on its own merit, I give it just 3 stars out of 5, mostly because of the problems I listed above.

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