High Society

Society is a big theme in the novel Daisy Miller and most of the characters seem obsessed with where they are placed within it. Winterbourne offers a unique perspective on both American and European societies as he has experience within both of them. The last scene highlights the novel’s message, the emptiness of high society.

Daisy has an obsession with society and mentions it multiple times she talks to Winterbourne. She wants to be ‘exclusive’ but as we see from her actions, she does everything to exclude herself. While Winterbourne is invested in her and tolerates her laxness of social rules, others within society are quick to outcast her. He goes back and forth within the novel believing her to be either a “little American flirt” or an innocent and unknowing young lady. The back and forth narrative creates uncertainty and paints him as an unreliable narrator. This hints that the lesson the novel tries to portray is not realized by Winterbourne.

At the end of the novel, we see Daisy become sick and die. No one seems to care except Winterbourne. After her death, the next summer in Rome, “in the interval Winterbourne had often thought of Daisy Miller and her mystifying manners… it was on his conscience that he had done her injustice” (James 64). The novel suggests that Winterbourne only thinks of Daisy when he visits Rome. He dismisses Daisy from his mind and only brings her back when his guilt is too much for him to bear.

The dismissal of Daisy as a person highlights how those who hold value separate from society suffer. The novel’s pointless upper-class affairs show the inhumanity in the culture of gossip. Winterbourne only comes to the conclusion that he was wrong about Daisy so he could cope with the guilt of caring for someone he should not have. After confronting his guilt he forgets Daisy and returns to his old life with no change in his character. The novel ends as it begins with Winterbourne in Genova studying devoted to a mysterious ‘clever foreign lady’. Daisy Miller highlights the way society treats people who do not belong.

One thought on “High Society”

  1. I also found Winterbourne’s odd limbo-esque position between American and European social traditions and practices to be preoccupying while I was reading. I don’t know that we can identify him as having a solid understanding of either American or European society– he seems to be on the outs, so to speak, no matter what side of the Atlantic he falls on (or which side whoever he’s trying to interpret falls on). He can’t understand whether or not American girls are all like Daisy and eventually decides that they must not be, but he also can’t tell what her motivations or intentions are in behaving in the way that she does through a European lens. He’s not socially strong himself, as we see through the inability of other people to pin down his maybe-real maybe-not relationships with a ‘foreign’ (what does that even mean for someone like Winterbourne?) lady (note: the only concrete relationship that we actually see Winterbourne have with a foreign lady is the one he has with Daisy, who you could consider foreign or not depending on whether you privilege Winterbourne’s American or European identity). We see other characters who are in a similar position, like Mrs. Walker, who have chosen to dedicate themselves to the “study” of social morays in the social situation where they find themselves. Some of these characters fall onto a spectrum– Mrs. Walker dedicates herself to understanding and fitting into European society, Winterbourne hovers indecisively in the middle, self-conscious of both adhering or distancing himself form the social expectations of others, and Daisy often seems to fail to notice all but the most blatant signs of her status as a social outcast.

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