Daisy Miller’s Personality – What She Was Not Essay

In his preface to the book, Henry James explains that his portrayal of Daisy Miller’s character was not an attempt to paint a picture of any character stereotype.  He describes his heroine as “pure poetry”(James, Henry viii).  The work, as such, is not a story at all in the sense of being a record of predictable  actions and reactions occurring in the central heroine’s life because the author never meant for her to be a heroine, or an epitome of any flesh and blood feminine type in any sociological or geographical setting.  On the contrary, he sketched Daisy as an impression of the circumstances of women during his time, a poetic statement about womanhood in general and how it fared in a society which only gave it a subordinate status. During his lifetime feminist movements had only begun to be conceived.

  Daisy Miller’s story is that of the struggle of womanhood  to gain authoritative status in society.  Henry Miller astutely portrays the fact that having no better options in a male dominated society, the worst that ladies could do then was to passively hide away in their boudoirs as Mrs. Costello did, and the highest attainment a woman could reach was to hold very respectable parties in her house like Mrs.

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Walker did. Daisy, the pathetic pivot point of the story, crossed the borders of accepted feminine behaviour because she was trying to gain equal footing in that society and ended up misunderstood, criticized and maltreatedDaisy Miller’s Personality – What She Was NotDaisy was externally impeccably if not overstatedly feminine. She had the finest tastes for dresses and feminine accessories and sought to display exquisite primness. In the story the first description of Daisy is a collective picture of white muslin, frills, flounces, ribbons and thickly embroidered parasol. Quaintly and with some irony, Winterbourne is made to utter “How pretty they are!”(James, Henry 8), describing  the details of her attire, with reservations about the prettiness of the person?  Elsewhere in the story, Winterbourne describes her as composed of “charming little parts that did not match and made no ensemble”(James, Henry 10-11).  Still further on he talks of her “having no idea of form”(James, Henry 11).  In short, the author wants to make it clear that Daisy, although impeccable of dress and refined of habit, did not exude an air of comfortable flamboyance in the costumes and ornaments she ostensibly wore.

She was not fashion conscious and did not attach much importance to whether all the separate “small finenesses and neatnesses” (James, Henry 11) flattered her or to enhanced her refinement.  The author is suggesting that for her, feminine charms were not the first concern.  Unlike other women who use their appeal to achieve their ends, she had no use for and was neither flattered nor made arrogant by the effect her charms had on people.

“…even should she depend on this for her main amusement her bright sweet superficial  little visage gave out neither mockery nor irony(James, Henry 12).” Notice the author’s use of the word visage which suggests the determination that marks everything she does in the story rather than feminine sophistication.Although she loved to converse, it was conversation alone she indulged in, not gossip.  She was not given to feminine niceties and flattery in conversation and preferred to make short  practical observations.  She was also hardly ever embarrassed and took everything matter of factly. On the first day of her meeting with Winterbourne, he daringly offered to accompany her alone to visit a famous castle in the vicinity. “She didn’t rise blushing, as a young person at Geneva would have done…But it seemed that … his audacity…(was) lost on Miss Daisy Miller(James, Henry 19).“  The author purposefully hints at her inner personality as flat, and unemotional, a symbol more than a personification of an idea, a central pivot for events more than a protagonist.

In this case she was the symbol for female oppression and around her grew questions and issues regarding the dignity and proper role of women in society which would be tackled more effectively in the great feminist movements following the period of Henry James’ life.What Daisy Miller Really Was            Daisy, her mother and younger brother were not living with her father for reasons unstressed perhaps because it had no direct bearing on the theme of the story.  They were on a continuous tour of Europe.

Her father was a prosperous businessman in America.  In the absence of paternal authority, Daisy acted as head of the family.  This would explain to some extent her masculine matter-of-factness, her persistence, bold manner and speech as well as her gregariousness which was interpreted by that society as flirting. The story does not recount her ever becoming pregnant even after having consorted with many gentlemen. No hint of romance is allowed to color her dealings with the opposite sex. Might it not be safe to assume then that her constant association with men arose from the fact she thought of herself as the representative for the family to a society dominated by men; she wanted to be on equal footing with men.  Wherever she went she sought social circles rather than stay home like any other decent lady of her time for who else would act as the voice of her family in that community.

  This the Calvinistic mind set of Genevans found to be disturbing and improper and she earned for herself the reputation of being a flirt since at that time that was the only conceivable reason why a woman would want to be constantly in the company of men.  The author however makes a clear distinction between Daisy’s character and the notorious belle dames of that time. “He had known here in Europe two or three women–persons older than Miss Daisy Miller and provided, for respectability’s sake, with husbands–who were great coquettes; dangerous terrible women with whom one’s light commerce might indeed take a serious turn. But this charming apparition wasn’t a coquette in that sense; she was very unsophisticated; she was only a pretty American flirt (James, Henry 17).”  The fact that Daisy craved not the affection but the regard of men is clearly stated towards the end of the story when Winterbourne tells his aunt that she, Daisy “sent me a message before her death which I didn’t understand at the time.

But I’ve understood it since. She would have appreciated one’s esteem (James, Henry 93).” The skill of Henry James in using sound to portray meaning is found his use of masculine sounding words to describe or said by Daisy Miller; visage, elegant, stiff , “”What are you doing, poking round here?(James, Henry 32)” and many others, all contributing to the general impression of masculine roughness underneath the fragile and pretty exterior of Daisy Miller; a roughness she sought to conceal by a studied refinement of mannerism…a man in a woman’s body or human dignity encased in human frailty.Style as a Means of Stressing the Theme“I hardly know if it was the analogies or the differences that were uppermost in the mind of the young man who… sat in the garden…looking about him rather idly”(James, Henry 4) is the mindset of the author himself on writing this story. Consciousness and perception are made to be the primary determinants of reality in his style. Therefore, the essential worth of phenomena is determined not by external manifestations but by the guiding force of thought within.  The many early critics of this work expected to find in it the deterministic opinionatedness of authors writing in previous literary styles consequently missing the whole point. It was only natural for them to detect a certain looseness in the flow of the story.

They accused the writer of inadequacies of execution that did not properly belong to the manner of presentation formulated in the author’s mind. The only way to interpret this story is to bear in mind that what we are reading are opinions and perceptions of individuals thinking within the limits of what they have been taught to believe and what they are able to reconcile with their way of thinking and living. The writer makes no suggestion to justify or condemn any one in the story and leaves it up to the reader to develop his own impression as to who was morally right and who was morally wrong, eventually often ending up by declaring no one the devil and proclaiming everyone right in his own way. The final verdict is not pronounced on any individual character but on the situation as a whole. The need for reform becomes the burden of the entire society. The theme of the story is the continuous struggle between the homogeneous and the heterogeneous in all levels of perception. .

In order to coat these abstractions with skin, the author created  Mrs. Costelo representing the homogeneous, “Calvinist” and scrupulous aspect of life,  and Daisy Miller personifying the non-conformist elements which are always seen as a threat by the status quo and therefore often ostracized if not eliminated by the uniform majority. And in the middle, the point at which both extremes meet we find the mundane but proper Mrs. Walker. It is the interaction between these three forces that provides movement in the story as it does in real life where uniformity and diversity are always interacting on each other to produce newer forms of uniformity and diversity each time a little less removed one from the other. Daisy wanting to be introduced to Mrs. Costelo because she admires the woman’s exclusivity and reputation is the catalyst of change approaching the element that needs to be changed.A Greek Tragedy of Sorts            Long ago I read something which has stuck to my mind ever since.

“The murderer kills himself and the person who kills himself kills his neighbor”. Receiving criticism from everyone she knew did not seem to daunt Daisy Miller’s high spirits.  But what do we really know of what went on in her mind. Would she not have considered as defeat the fact that she could never win back anyone’s respect unless she were to abandon the vivacity that constituted the essence of her belief and being. Why would she have gone to the dreaded nesting place of malaria-carrying mosquitos at an hour when it was already dark and the ancient structures of the colosseum would appear no different from ordinary rocks and mosquito feeding would be at its peak.

Would it be presumptious and hasty to think that the only way she could vindicate herself was to prove to everyone her innocence of all their accusations by having her last laugh in the face of death itself?Works Cited:James, Henry. Daisy Miller. New York Editionhttp://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/search?title=Daisy+Miller;tmode=words;