Throughout Daisy Miller, Winterbourne seems to hover between two cultures, European and American. By extension, he also hovers between propriety and impropriety, and the novel seems to be leading him to a point where he must make a choice between the two. Winterbourne is entirely infatuated with Daisy, and she represents his desire to break free from European societal expectations, although it seems that she pushes a little too much against convention for his comfort.
The climax of Winterbourne’s indecision comes near the end of chapter three, when Mrs. Walker attempts to convince Daisy to ride in her carriage instead of walking around with Mr. Giovanelli. Daisy asks Winterbourne what he thinks she should do, and it seems as though she is knowingly testing him:
“There was a little pink flush in her cheek; she was tremendously pretty. ‘Does Mr. Winterbourne think,’ she asked slowly, smiling, throwing back her head and glancing at him from head to foot, ‘that – to save my reputation – I ought to get into the carriage?’”
Winterbourne is finally asked to choose between what is socially proper and the carefree impropriety represented by Daisy – the choice he’s been avoiding all throughout the novel. He spends a great deal of time considering how to respond, and perhaps the language used gives away his answer sooner than anticipated: “he himself, in fact, must speak in accordance with gallantry” (43). The word “must” prompts the question of “why?” Why must Winterbourne “speak in accordance with gallantry”? What does “gallantry” mean in this specific situation? “Must” implies an obligation, in this case to social rules, while “gallantry” seems to imply chivalrous, gentlemanly behavior. Winterbourne is called to act “in accordance with” the expectations of Mrs. Walker, and he finds that “the finest gallantry, here, was simply to tell [Dasiy] the truth…”. But truth is subjective, as the next phrase discreetly shows: “The truth, for Winterbourne… was that Daisy Miller should take Mrs. Walker’s advice” (43). The “truth” that Winterbourne lands upon is, in fact, the choice he makes between ‘proper’ and ‘reckless’ behavior. Perhaps by labeling it as “truth,” Winterbourne makes an effort to lift some responsibility from his own shoulders. Daisy should take Mrs. Walker’s advice; this is not Winterbourne’s own opinion, but “the truth.”
Winterbourne’s response to Daisy’s question, and his answer to the question of (im)propriety that has plagued him through the novel, is carefully considered and “very gently” delivered (43). Daisy, however, responds sharply: “Daisy gave a violent laugh. ‘I never heard anything so stiff! If this is improper, Mrs. Walker,’ she pursued, ‘then I am all improper and you must give me up.’” There is a contrast between Winterbourne’s gentle response and Daisy’s “violent laugh,” which perhaps illustrates the contrasting ways they present themselves to the world. They each flirt and carry on intimate relationships with multiple people – Daisy and her various gentlemen, Winterbourne and his implied lover in Geneva, as well as the “two or three women… who were great coquettes… with whom one’s relations were liable to take a serious turn” (12) – but they present themselves differently to society, and receive different reactions from their onlookers. Winterbourne has the air of a gentleman, and is never judged too harshly for associating with Daisy (nor, interestingly, with his married female friend Mrs. Walker, whose husband never actually makes an appearance in the text). Daisy, on the other hand, is judged incredibly harshly for her carefree, reckless behavior, to the point of being shunned at Mrs. Walker’s party. There are other layers to this, such as a cultural layer and a gendered double standard, but the point remains that Daisy and Winterbourne are similar characters who choose to go down different paths. They may have been walking along together thus far, but this point in the novel marks the place where the path splits. Daisy invites Winterbourne down one way, but he hesitatingly chooses the other, and in doing so loses Daisy forever.