Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Daisy Miller

Go To

Winterbourne: What has she been doing?
Mrs. Walker: Everything that is not done here.

An 1878 novella by Henry James — half romantic comedy, half social commentary and mockery of rich, snobby Americans who tried to imitate rich, snobby Europeans. Available here.

Frederick Winterbourne, age 27, was just another average, mundane, young man, American by birth but raised in Europe since childhood, until he took a break from "studying" in Geneva to visit his aunt in Vevey, Switzerland. That's when he met her: 19-year-old Daisy Miller from Schenectady, New York, on a tour of Europe with her mother and little brother. From the moment she stumbles across his path as he's sitting in the hotel garden drinking coffee, Winterbourne is smitten by her. She's beautiful, graceful, friendly... and, he soons learns, the enemy of all respectable American snobs trying to fit in among European snobs. Her crimes are unforgiveable. She's a chatterbox! She treats her courier, Eugenio, like he's her friend and equal! She takes strolls in public alone or worse, with men she's not related to! She... flirts! In short, she's an independent, stubborn, lively young woman who's interested in everything, wants to be friends with everybody, and literally refuses to do as the Romans do when in Rome. No amount of mortification or warnings from her compatriots can convince her to live life by anything but her own rules and what makes her happy, propriety be damned!

Despite his aunt's warning to stay away from the eccentric, vulgar Miller girl and her equally vulgar family, Winterbourne is determined to get to know Daisy better, if only to try to figure out what makes her tick, even taking her on an excursion to Castle Chillon. Since Winterbourne has to return to Geneva afterwards, the two plan to meet again in Rome. Winterbourne's enthusiasm for the plan fades, however, once he arrives and hears the scandalous stories of Miss Miller flirting with every man in Italy. When she dares to stroll along the Pincio with Winterbourne on one arm and her friend Mr. Giovanelli on the other and later brings Giovanelli to Mrs. Walker's party, her fellow Americans decide she has gone too far and actively begin to give her the cold shoulder, lest their European companions believe they approve of her behavior.

Winterbourne must resolve a dilemma: Is Daisy simply an innocent American girl worth thinking well of? Or is she really as senseless and vulgar as everyone says she is and not worthy of all the anxiety he suffers trying to figure it out? He finally decides she does not deserve his efforts to think well of her when he finds her hanging out with Giovanelli in the Colosseum in the middle of the night, which everyone knows is the perfect time for contracting the deadly Roman fever (malaria, transmitted chiefly by the mosquitoes that came out after dark). He insists he doesn't even care if what she told him about being engaged was true or a joke.

With all the misunderstandings, bad judgment and Daisy's clever wit, the scandal plays out like a typical romantic comedy. And then Daisy dies of Roman fever, and Winterbourne realizes too late that he was wrong about her, so he goes back to his older mistress in Geneva since it's too late for him to change. He has lived too long in foreign parts.

James and his friend William Dean Howells spent many a night banging their heads against the wall over how many American readers thought Daisy was an insult to Americans when, clearly, James was trying to insult the Americans who ostracized her just for not being a snob! Sadly, they proved James' point all too well, rejecting the bold girl as if they, like their counterparts within the story, "desired to express to observant Europeans the great truth that, though Miss Daisy Miller was a young American lady, her behavior was not representative — was regarded by her compatriots as abnormal."

Got a 1974 film adaptation directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starring Cybill Shepherd in the title role, with Barry Brown as Winterbourne and Cloris Leachman as Daisy's mother.

Daisy herself is an example of:

  • Deadpan Snarker: She's a snarky lady.
    "But if you won't flirt with me, do cease, at least, to flirt with your friend at the piano; they don't understand that sort of thing here."
    "I thought they understood nothing else!" exclaimed Daisy.
    "Not in young unmarried women."
    "It seems to me much more proper in young unmarried women than in old married ones," Daisy declared.
  • Well, Excuse Me, Princess!
    "It has never occurred to Mr. Winterbourne to offer me any tea," she said with her little tormenting manner.
    "I have offered you advice," Winterbourne rejoined.
    "I prefer weak tea!" cried Daisy, and she went off with the brilliant Giovanelli.

The story provides examples of:

  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Randolph Miller
  • Conflicting Loyalty: Winterborne, between Daisy and high society.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Winterborne to Daisy, due to her death.
  • Double Entendre: "I noticed you were as stiff as an umbrella the first time I saw you."
  • Double Standard: True to the times the story is set in. Daisy is judged solely by the level of her "innocence", which is in turn measured by her openly talking to and taking walks with men. One of the people most concerned with her "innocence" is Winterbourne, a man who has a lover. Even Winterbourne's aunt, a guardian of societal rules, snarks about how her nephew is privileged for being a man.
  • Downer Ending: Winterborne realizes how wrong he was to help ostracize Daisy Miller just as she dies of Roman fever.
  • The Film of the Book
  • Foreshadowing
    "You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent."
    "My dear aunt, I am not so innocent," said Winterbourne, smiling and curling his mustache.
  • Gossipy Hens: Winterborne's aunt and other high society women.
  • Green-Eyed Epiphany: Definitely a result of Daisy flirting with Giovanelli.
  • Have a Gay Old Time
    "He wondered what were the regular conditions and limitations of one's intercourse with a pretty American flirt. It presently became apparent that he was on the way to learn."
  • Hypocrite: Winterbourne has a lover, but wishes that Daisy flirts only with him, does what he tells her to do, and is very concerned about her "innocence".
  • Ironic Echo: "You were right in that remark that you made last summer. I was booked to make a mistake. I have lived too long in foreign parts." Mrs. Costello meant that Winterbourne would become involved in a scandalous relationship; what Winterbourne regrets is that he didn't.
  • Just Friends: What Daisy insists Giovanelli is to her.
  • Latin Lover: Giovanelli
  • Love Hurts: Boy does it ever.
  • Master of the Mixed Message: Both Daisy (possibly intentionally) and Winterbourne (because he can't make up his mind).
  • Meaningful Names: A relationship between a guy with winter in his name and a girl named after a flower is destined to be disastrous. The last name "Miller" also implies New Money — Daisy's father earned his fortune from a trade (like a miller), instead of inheriting it. Oh, the shame!
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: The very essence of Winterbourne's dilemma about Daisy. And he is one of the most open-minded people about her.
  • Never My Fault: Winterbourne at least partly blames Giovanelli for Daisy's death.
    Winterbourne felt sore and angry. "Why the devil," he asked, "did you take her to that fatal place?"
    Mr. Giovanelli's urbanity was apparently imperturbable. He looked on the ground a moment, and then he said, "For myself I had no fear; and she wanted to go."
    "That was no reason!" Winterbourne declared.
  • Nice to the Waiter: One of the reasons the Millers' compatriots scorn them is for how nice and friendly they are to their courier, Eugenio.
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: Not in proper American or European society, you won't! At least, only if you're a girl.
  • No Longer with Us: Randolph tells Winterbourne that his father "is in a better place than Europe". What place? "The sphere of celestial reward"? Nope, just Schenectady.
  • Romantic False Lead: Giovanelli is treated like a joke by the snobbish American characters, but a modern reader will probably see him as a decent man who works for a living, has good manners, can sing well (not that Mrs. Walker's guests would applaud him) and is a lot less judgmental about and understands Daisy better than even Winterbourne (actually, Winterbourne himself notes some of Giovanelli's good qualities and considers him an intelligent man). Overall, Daisy's Italian suitor may now seem more sympathetic than the protagonist.
  • Open-Minded Parent: Mrs. Miller.
  • Operation: Jealousy: Possibly Daisy's flirting with Giovanelli.
  • Pride: Mrs. Walker's social circle most notably is defined by this, but Daisy has her share as well: she won't bow to the rules that society is trying to shove on her.
  • Secondary Character Title: Winterborne is the main and POV character, while Daisy Miller's name is on the title.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: After being ostracized by high society and strung along by Winterborne throughout the whole story, Daisy dies of Roman fever.
  • Signature Style: James hadn't developed his signature paragraph-long-sentences style in 1878, but he applied this style to his revision of the story in 1909.
  • Tempting Fate
    '"I don't care," said Daisy in a little strange tone, "whether I have Roman fever or not!"
  • Twice Shy
  • Umbrella of Togetherness: After Winterbourne returns to the Pincio to look for Daisy, the sight of Daisy and Giovanelli cuddling under her parasol makes him turn right around.