Daisy Miller: Authentic Virtue vs. Performative Virtue

Rene Renoir, 'Girl With Daisies'

Rene Renoir, ‘Girl With Daisies’

Henry James’ Daisy Miller: A Study is a carefully crafted novella that critiques the hypocrisy of aristocratic ‘society’ by following the title character, whose family has climbed the social ladder from the working/middle class to the aristocracy, as she navigates her way through and tries to interact with the characters who peopled the aristocratic world into which she is thrust. The result is an exposé that illustrates the double-standard of sexual propriety that is expected of women, and the performative nature of virtue.


James makes particular use of names in the novella, firstly in naming the novella ‘A Study’.  One is lead to perhaps see this as an academic case study, presumably of Daisy Miller since it is her name that precedes ‘A Study’, though it could be argued that Mr. Winterbourne, perhaps the narrative’s antagonist, for lack of a better term, is the focus of the study.  It seems more likely though that Winterbourne is the one doing the studying and that Daisy is the subject of the study.  Throughout the novella he wonders about Daisy’s actions, or inactions, and creates hypotheses which he then tries to apply to Daisy.  Curiously absent though is direct interaction with Daisy.  Winterbourne could easily question her as to her motives, but instead leaves her out of the discussion and presumes to make conclusions about her without drawing from what is perhaps his most fruitful source: Daisy.  This is reminiscent of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street, in which the narrator is repeatedly presented with a scrivener in his service, Bartleby, who would “prefer not to” do the work required of him.  The narrator is consumed with the dilemma of what to do with Bartleby and a great many times suggests solutions but never once asks Bartleby what he would prefer to do.  Likewise, Winterbourne, who is consumed with the puzzle that is Daisy Miller, simply does not address her when concerning herself with her motivations.   He plays the part of the scientist who observes only and does not enquire with the subject, though he can, and title the work ‘A Study’ emphasises this relationship.



Henry James

Henry James

Daisy name is also of importance.  It is made clear at the onset that Daisy’s name isn’t Daisy at all, but rather Annie.  Daisy though, serving both as the name of a person and as the name of a flower, serves perfectly in this respect in that she is like an organism under observation throughout the novella, as a flower might be, but also because she is referred to, by Winterbourne, as ‘uncultivated’ several times throughout the novella, and such flowers can also be uncultivated.  But there is also the element of the flower’s innate beauty.  Daisy is described as beautiful and it is this beauty alone which seems to interest Winterbourne.  He does not ask her personal questions, and though her manners appear uncultivated in aristocratic society, he forgives this, no doubt because she is so beautiful.  Inversely though, she is limited in this role as a beautiful flower because Winterbourne makes no attempt to truly communicate with her throughout the novella and she is relegated by Winterbourne as merely an ornament of beauty and not somebody with whom he could have a genuine discourse.


Giovanni Boldini

Giovanni Boldini

Daisy’s last name, Miller, also serves as a key with which to unlock the mysteries surrounding the treatment Daisy is given by her aristocratic peers.  A miller is a person who works at a mill, and so Daisy’s last name gives away her working class roots and distances her from her colleagues.  Like Jewish people who could be identified often by their last name should it carry a “stein” or a “burg” or “man” at the end, Daisy is subject to aristocratic prejudices no doubt based partly on the name which she carries.  We are reminded of, with James’ selection of a miller, the novella Life In The Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis and the snobbish view that the ruling classes held of the working class men who peopled the mill.  Daisy is no doubt subject to such prejudices herself being that she carries with her a name representative of the working class.  Winterbourne’s name likewise is telling as it sets him up as the natural antagonist to Daisy.    A daisy is born in the spring and writhers and dies in the winter months, suggesting that the pairing of Daisy and Winterbourne could be problematic at best and, as it turns out, could carry fatal consequences for Daisy.


Cybill Shepherd as Daisy Miller in the 1974 film of the same name.  Like Daisy, Cybill also carries a working class surname.

Cybill Shepherd as Daisy Miller in the 1974 film of the same name. Like Daisy, Cybill also carries a working class surname.

James also uses a framing device for the narrative.  It perhaps may have been a easier  device had James relied on a first person narration from Winterbourne himself since the narrative voice seems limited to only his point of view, but the framing device James uses offers a telling element that would not have been present had he simply used Winterbourne as the narrative voice.  Instead he has a narrative voice, like the narrative voice Life In The Iron Mills, whose gender is left unidentified and whose listener is invited into a circle of aristocratic gossip.  The two voices differ greatly though in that Davis’s voice is sympathetic to the working classes while the voice James provides seems to delight in the gossip and even shares some of the prejudices of his/her class which is not present in the narrative voice of Davis’s work.  We see that the voice in James’ novella begins to refer to Daisy formally as Miss. Miller, but soon slips into a more familiar voice and calls her Daisy in scenes where Daisy’s actions seems to elicit judgement from her aristocratic peers.  Eventually the voice seems to mock Daisy, referring to her as signorina in one of her final scenes, borrowing the word employed by Daisy’s confident Giovanelli.  The narrative voice also seems to be telling of the hypocritical and unsympathetic voice of the aristocracy as the voice alluded to an affair Winterbourne is having with an older, married lady in Geneva as he/she opens the narrative, and concludes the narrative with a second reference to this rumour, yet he/she does not pass judgement on Winterbourne as he/she does on Daisy.  The narrator also notes that Winterbourne is well liked, saying: “When his enemies spoke of him, they said–but, after all, he had no enemies; he was an extremely amiable fellow, and universally liked.”   Despite being ‘universally liked’ everybody speaks of his situation in Geneva, indicating that not even people who are well liked and respected are immune to gossip in such circles.  The voice offers no sympathy for Daisy when she dies and so seems distance and cold.



Dialect, though not as prominent in this work as it is in works by Mark Twain, or Charles Chesnutt’s The Goophered Grapevine, is nevertheless present.  It is subtle and easy to miss, but twice in the novella Daisy uses the word ‘don’t’ when she should have used the word ‘doesn’t’, and also employs phrases like ‘Oh brother’ and ‘I declare’, while her brother and mother also make use of the word ‘ain’t’ in the novella, which sits in stark contrast to the elevated and often longwinded nature of the language employed by a Victorian aristocrat.


There is also the patriarchal bias to the standards of the Victorian aristocracy.  It is noted, after Daisy is chastised for being familiar with men, that “a man” on the other hand “may know everyone” and that men “are welcome to the privilege!”  This is present with Daisy’s brother, who at the novella’s opening is seen with a rather phallic alpenstock which he uses to “thrust into… the trains of the ladies’ dresses.”  Her brother, though younger, makes a habit of familiarizing himself with women, but it is only a passing comment in the novella, while Daisy is the subject of great gossip.  James even lends this bias to the natural world in the novella’s final passages.  Both Winterbourne and Giovanelli are out in the evening, as is Daisy, but just as Daisy is the only one of the three to be subject to gossip, so too is she the only one who is subject to the Roman Fever, and dies as a result of catching it.  In both the world of aristocratic gossip and the disease, the men seem to be immune to the dangers presented.


Lord Byron

Lord Byron

There are also a number of intertextual references.  When at the Colosseum, Daisy notes that Winterbourne looks as she and her confident “as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs”, referencing Biblical stories, the implication is obvious here as Daisy is presented as a martyr before the aristocracy.  James also references Lord Byron’s poem ‘The Prisoner of Chillon’, which speaks of the imprisonment of Genevois.  In the poem, which Winterbourne references, Genevois watches the natural world at play from his cell, while he is imprisoned.  It could be argued that Daisy is the one imprisoned, but it seems that she is perhaps the one who is free, being identified with the natural world via her name, and that it is the aristocracy who is imprisoned by the chains of conformity and that they in turn envy Daisy her freedom and bitterly judge her for embracing the joys of freedom which they feel compelled to reject in favour of socially constructed habits.  Byron’s poem ‘Manfred’ in the closing sequences of the novella, and again is mentioned by Winterbourne, who, when put alongside the Byronic hero, seems an utter failure.  Manfred, in the poem, is tortured with guilt over the death of his beloved, but when Daisy dies there is little mentioned of Winterbourne’s emotive response and it is noted that he quite easily reverts back to his ‘studies’ in Geneva, which is of course a reference to the affair he had been having with the unnamed married woman.  Manfred challenges authoritative powers in the poem, but Winterbourne fails utterly to accomplish any such thing, conceding to both Mrs. Walker and his aunt when they assert societal obligations which he has.


Prisoner of Chillon

Prisoner of Chillon

If anybody serves as a Byronic hero in the novella, it is Daisy, who herself challenges societal conventions and dies in the process.  She challenges Winterbourne’s social assertions openly, stating: “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do”, a feminist hero in the mould of the ones who would later populate James’ Bostonians. She also challenges Mrs. Walker who seeks to rescue Daisy from gossip.  Daisy states simply: “If this is improper, Mrs. Walker… then I am all improper, and you must give me up.”  Daisy openly challenges the aristocratic conventions of what is ‘proper’.  When it is suggested to Daisy that only married women should be conveying themselves as Daisy is, Daisy notes the hypocrisy of that and states that married women are the ones who shouldn’t be engaged in such behaviours due to the commitment they’ve made to their husbands.  Daisy also promotes a level of intimacy with ‘the help’ as Winterbourne’s aunt notes, Daisy is “a young lady… who has an intimacy with her mamma’s courier.”  This intimacy is of course nothing more vile than referring to her courier by his first name and allowing him to do the same in return, whilst also sharing meals with him.  Daisy, coming from the working class, displays an equality that should be aspired to by all, an equality that challenges aristocratic social conventions and encourages others to look down upon her.  Winterbourne suggests that his aunt is being too severe for while he concedes that Daisy is ‘uncultivated’ he notes that “she is not, after all, a Comanche savage.”  This, though, is a problematic statement as it implies that if she were a Comanche, it would be permissible to carry out prejudices against her, and so Winterbourne agrees with his aunt that prejudices are acceptable, they only disagree on whom they should be applied to.  The fact that when she is buried, she is buried in a protestant cemetery in Rome adds to her challenging convention as she rejects Catholicism in the heart of the Catholic state.


James masterfully navigates aristocratic terrain in a form which is perhaps best described as satiric, portraying a sympathetic female protagonist who serves as a hybridised feminist/Byronic hero that illuminates the hypocrisy of the aristocratic society.  Though perhaps tame by contemporary standards, Daisy is the unwitting radical in a tragic narrative where none of the characters seem to appreciate trails she endures and so it is left to the reader to mourn the loss of virtue.


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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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