Daisy Miller: A Study

From the very beginning of Daisy Miller by Henry James, Winterbourne takes it upon himself to learn about Daisy. He describes himself as having “… a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analyzing it…” (James 8). This statement in itself is extremely creepy. Winterbourne, a 27 year old man, wants to analyze the beauty of a young American girl. The use of the words “observing” and “analyzing” are very scientific, which hints to the original publication’s subtitle, “A Study.” During their first conversation, Winterbourne continues to dissect Daisy’s words and actions in an attempt to discern whether or not she is as “innocent” as her appearance suggests. He comes to the conclusion she is not a “coquette” (which he has experienced in the form of married women *eye roll*), and that she is simply “a pretty American flirt.”

From this first conversation and throughout the novel Winterbourne fixates on the fact that while Daisy is a flirt, she is not aware that her actions are frowned upon. He seems to use this fact to justify his attraction to her. Winterbourne’s “study” of Daisy’s behavior is very unreliable. He projects the idea of innocence on her, while evidence shows that she does in fact, know how her behavior is perceived; “It seems to me much more proper in young unmarried women than in old married ones” (James 50). This line shows Daisy knows much more about European social standards than Winterbourne believes she knows. She essentially says she believes her behavior should be considered normal, and she makes no change to her flirtations just because she is in Europe and not America.

Winterbourne’s “study” of Daisy could easily be called an obsession instead of a study. His view of her is warped; he sees her as he wants to see her rather than who she really is. His belief that she is “innocent” is not based on fact, it is based on his own desire for her. He also follows her to Italy after only knowing her for a few days at Vevey. Instead of Daisy Miller being about Daisy Miller herself, it is really about Winterbourne’s idea of Daisy Miller.

2 thoughts on “Daisy Miller: A Study”

  1. I love this reading of Winterbourne’s perception of Daisy, especially the way you wrap up his “study” of her in your last paragraph. The narrator is so close to Winterbourne’s voice and perspective that it is difficult to get a true idea of Daisy’s character, and I agree that he seems to be projecting his desire onto her rather than seeing who she really is. I was reminded of this passage, when Winterbourne arrives in Rome and hears of Daisy’s behavior: “He was annoyed at hearing of a state of affairs so little in harmony with an image that had lately flitted in and out of his own meditations; the image of a very pretty girl looking out of an old Roman window and asking herself urgently when Mr. Winterbourne would arrive” (Penguin Classics, 33). This passage makes Winterbourne’s infatuation and obsession with Daisy obvious – she’s been “flitt[ing] in and out of his… meditations”; he can’t keep her out of his mind. But it also highlights the way Winterbourne projects an idea of who he thinks Daisy is, or who he wants her to be. He imagines that she is as obsessed with him as he is with her, and he becomes frustrated when reality doesn’t match up to his fantasies. Yet instead of realizing his misconception of her, he continues to make inaccurate, unreliable observations of Daisy and project an idea of innocence upon her, ultimately leading him to lose her to Mr. Giovanelli.

  2. I agree, great analysis! The whole novel hints that Winterbourne is an unreliable narrator and that the novel is not about Daisy but about his perception of her. I also think it interesting that between the two editions of the text the reliability of Winterbourne changes. In the forward, it states, “the first edition offers strong intermittent hints that we should doubt Winterbourne’s conclusions, the NYE works the doubts more closely into the text of the narration” (xxxi). One has to wonder whether or not James was unhappy with the reception and perception of both Winterbourne and Daisy in his first edition.

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