Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender

By Jerilyn Fisher; Ellen S. Silber | Go to book overview

“A Nice Girl Ought to Know!” Henry James’ Daisy Miller (1878)

Laurie F.Leach

Henry James’ Daisy Miller: A Study invites discussion of sexual double standards and the harsh penalties exacted for transgressing gender norms. The title character, a “young American flirt,” earns the derision and condemnation of a group of Europeanized Americans by such “offenses” as walking in public with men and arriving at parties with a male escort and no chaperone. Considered too delicate to concern themselves with business, politics, or other intellectual activities, middle- and upper-class women in nineteenth-century Europe and America looked to marriage for security and social status. In Europe, unmarried women were strictly chaperoned; however, according to William Dean Howells, only “a few hundreds of families in America [had] accepted the European theory of the necessity of surveillance for young ladies” (quoted in Stafford 111). Daisy is not only accustomed to the American standard, but she also refuses to defer to those who urge her to conform so as to protect her reputation.

While young women’s behavior was carefully scrutinized, men enjoyed greater liberty. Thus Daisy’s public flirtation with Giovanelli, though innocent, leads to her social disgrace, while Winterbourne’s liaison with an older woman in Geneva is condoned, occasioning only mild gossip. Furthermore, Winterbourne remains on Mrs. Walker’s guest list and retains his aunt’s esteem despite his continuing association with Daisy, while both of these older women feel they must reject Daisy in order to reaffirm their own standards of respectability.

Unlike the other older women in the story, Daisy’s mother does little to curb her behavior. Touring Europe only at her husband’s insistence, she uses her ill health as an excuse to avoid seeing much of it. Faintly aware that Daisy is not behaving appropriately, she can only protest weakly, for she misunder-

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