While I was reading Daisy Miller by Henry James, I was struck by how Daisy is portrayed in a negative light for being so scandalous, especially in comparison to the behaviors of Winterbourne. From the initial description of Winterbourne, it is evident that his motives for being in Geneva are flawed: he spent so much time there because “he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there—a foreign lady—a person older than himself” (4). This fact is barely mentioned again in the novella, which instead focuses on diminishing Daisy for her escapades.
The narrator and Winterbourne are concerned with Daisy’s Americanness and how it enables her to act so relaxed. When Winterbourne and Daisy’s first meet, Winterbourne is “inclined to think Miss Daisy Miller was a flirt—a pretty American flirt” (10). Daisy was part of a generation of women that had had some freedoms, but not full independence. Winterbourne understands Daisy’s desires to be bold and unconventional as wrong, and worries about the path she will go down. Because she is so charming and sociable, Winterbourne sees Daisy merely as “very unsophisticated” (11) and as someone who could never be his equal.
Winterbourne tries to paint himself as above others in his social/economic class: he does not feel compelled to listen to his aunt, Mrs. Costello, when she worries about the Miller family’s status. When Mrs. Costello refuses to meet Daisy because she seems improper and immature, Winterbourne continues to seek Daisy out, and his aunt’s opinions do not seem to weigh heavily on him. Strangely, his thoughts Daisy are not much different from those of his aunt. While he is less concerned about Daisy’s social standings, he spends much time dwelling on her interactions with other men.
After Daisy and Winterbourne meet in Vevey, Switzerland, Daisy, her mother, and her young brother travel to Rome. Winterbourne promises to come visit Daisy when he stays with his family, Mrs. Walker, friend in Rome, but upon his arrival, it becomes clear that Daisy has been involved with other men. Mrs. Walker shares Mrs. Costello’s concerns, and warns Winterbourne about what Daisy has been doing in Rome. Daisy has been “flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o’clock at night” (36). While some of these behaviors might be dangerous in a foreign city, it seems evident that Daisy is merely learning to test the limits of her independence and authority. No poor interactions are explained, and Daisy takes accountability for her actions.
While in Rome, Daisy, her mother, Mrs. Walker, and Winterbourne quarrel about Daisy’s desires to go for walks outside on her own. She defies their wishes and is often out at strange hours getting some fresh air. This, in particular, infuriates Winterbourne, and leads him to wonder “whether Daisy’s defiance came from the consciousness of innocence or from her being, essentially, a young person of the reckless class” (45).
Daisy becomes “dangerously ill” (50) from walking around Rome at midnight, and later dies from Roman Fever. Daisy is young, smart, and inquisitive. Her desires for greater independence do not stem from wanting to push back on her mother and family friends, but rather from wanting to except her role as a young woman in a culture that was quickly changing. Daisy’s death brings her trials to an abrupt end, and one that seems related to her perceived foolishness.