Winterbourne’s Choice

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. 

Defending Daisy Miller

In the fourth chapter of Henry James Daisy Miller, the narrator states, “[Winterbourne] felt very sorry for her—not because he believed that she had completely lost her head, but because it was painful to hear so much that was pretty and undefended and natural assigned to a vulgar place among the categories of disorder” (54). The keywords I want to focus on here are “pretty,” “undefended,” and “natural.” To really unpack the meaning of these words though, I would first like to make two considerations: one of perceptions of Daisy Miller in relation to gender and history, and the other of another a specific scene in which Daisy’s prettiness and rebelliousness is responded to.

While reading Daisy Miller, I instinctually want to defend Daisy against accusations of her having “lost her head” or any other accusation of there being something fundamentally wrong with her mentally. She does show signs of narcissism and can be manipulative, but from my standpoint as a feminist in the 21st century, I would like for the most part to consider Daisy as something more along the lines of a liberated woman. Of course, women’s liberation, in more formal movements, would not come for nearly another hundred years’ after the novel was published, and the first wave of feminism was only just starting to really blossom at the time. Any hey, in the 19th century, wanting to deviate from societal norms was generally enough for a person to be diagnosed with a mental illness or otherwise shunned or invalidated. Putting aside histories of feminism and mental illness, I bring this up because I want to make clear that I do not believe that Daisy is supposed to be a liberated character, nor that her lack of concern for societal norms is supposed to be read as a thing that other women should be striving to achieve. No matter how much my contemporary lens is willing to forgive Daisy Miller, she would not have been perceived in the time period the way I perceive her now.

But if Daisy’s liberated character is clearly not supposed to be read as a positive thing considering historical contexts, then why is Winterbourne so enamored with and forgiving of her? For a brief moment I hoped, rather naively, that perhaps James was simply ahead of his time and that he wrote Daisy Miller to advance sophisticated portrayals of women that position them outside of conventional roles. Daisy is after all a representation of a certain kind of woman that existed historical that can be contextualized and understood today within larger histories of gender construction. But when looking at the context of some of the interactions between Daisy and Winterbourne, almost all of which include an observation of her beauty, I discovered the less feminist reason for Winterbourne’s fixation on Daisy Miller.

In chapter three when Winterbourne meets Giovanelli for the first time, Giovanelli makes a comment on Daisy’s character and Daisy immediately chastises him. She claims, “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do” (40). Whether or not this statement is true is a debate for another time. What I want to examine is the way that Daisy is described when she makes this statement and its content in conjunction with Winterbourne’s response. Before she makes this statement, Daisy is described as having “eyes that were prettier than ever” (40). Winterbourne then responds, “I think that you have made a mistake. You should sometimes listen to a gentleman—the right one” (40). The implication of the combination of Daisy’s prettiness, her defiant statement, and Winterbourne’s immediate correction demonstrates that Winterbourne is willing to excuse, even appreciate, Daisy’s deviations from the societal norms because of her beauty. More importantly, however, he, in his position as a real gentleman of proper society, would is capable of reforming, or in a way saving, her, if only she would listen.

Returning to those three words mentioned earlier, “pretty,” “undefended,” and “natural,” it is now possible to understand these words more deeply. Daisy’s prettiness is one of her most notable qualities, and her beauty is what draws Winterbourne to her. However, she also presents a wildness, one that is “natural” for a woman who has not been taught and sheltered properly (by a proper gentleman) to present. She has also not been properly defended, i.e. she does not have someone of proper society like Winterbourne to vouch for her in appropriate ways. A relationship between Daisy and Winterbourne would in a way, then, save Daisy. But if she were to accept such a thing, would she really be Daisy Miller anymore?