Daisy Miller is the name of a late 19th century short story written by Henry James. It is considered one of James' most poignant works. It is a commentary on how Americans and Europeans viewed one another at the end of the 19th century. The story lends itself to literary analysis because of how its themes resonate with Americans' romantic fascination with Europe at the time.
The latter half of the 19th century saw a wave of scientific advancements. Among these were developments in trans-Atlantic travel. The screw propeller helped to nearly double the speed of steamships. By the 1870s voyages between the United States and Europe took only ten days. Prior to the invention of the screw propeller, trans-Atlantic journeys took roughly 19 days.
This period was also an era of social change. Industrialization and the advent of big businesses heralded the American "gilded age." This was a period marked by the rise of the robber barons: powerful and wealthy business owners who contributed to the development of America's upper class and its unprecedented level of opulence. Though the prosperity of this class was established on a base of low-paid workers and dangerous working conditions, its contribution to American culture is expressed in art and literature from the period.
The American upper class resonated strongly with the lifestyles of European royalty. Its conspicuously lavish mansions and social events captivated the imagination and engendered romanticism with the history of the Old World. For those with means, transatlantic travel became popular. Americans became fascinated with their European roots as well as with ancient lands like Egypt and the holy land. Moreover, Americans' perception of Europeans was that they were worldlier and culturally more sophisticated. This blend of romance, culture, and travel is effectively expressed in Daisy Miller.
"Daisy Miller" opens in Vevey, Switzerland. Winterbourne, a man vacationing there, meets a boy called Randolph Miller. Randolph introduces Winterbourne to his older sister Daisy, a beautiful girl who captivates Winterbourne. Randolph does not like the European scene as much as his hometown, Schenectady, New York. By contrast, Daisy is enraptured by Europe and outwardly aspires to be accepted by and participate in high culture.
Winterbourne initially disregards Daisy's outward demeanor as false. Winterbourne's elitist aunt Mrs. Costello earnestly objects to his visiting Chateau de Chillon with Daisy virtually on the heels of their initial acquaintance. Intending to go to Geneva the following day, Winterbourne breaks the news to Daisy. Daisy is not pleased, but invites Winterbourne to meet her in Rome at a later time.
Winterbourne continues to pursue Daisy, encountering her in Rome at the home of an American, Mrs. Walker. Here, Winterbourne learns that Daisy has been having a questionable liaison with a lower class Italian called Giovanelli. A woman of high social mores, Mrs. Walker works with Winterbourne to convince Daisy to end this relationship, but their efforts are in vain.
While touring Rome's ancient Coliseum, a frustrated Winterbourne happens upon Daisy and Giovanelli. Winterbourne verbally attacks Giovanelli in a rage and accuses him of endangering Daisy by potentially exposing her to Roman fever (a strain of malaria prevalent in late 19th century Rome). The story concludes with Daisy contracting Roman fever and dying shortly after this encounter.
The story's themes of romance and scandal amid high culture are accentuated most prominently by the accompanying theme of innocence. Daisy's innocence and naivety are portrayed from the outset of the story. This is most clearly illustrated early on by Winterbourne's first impression of her. Daisy exhibits a trance-like enthrallment with Europe's cultural elite. She wishes to partake in its good life, but rebels against the social attitudes and behavioral expectations. This is illustrated by Daisy's unwillingness to break off her relationship with Giovanelli.
The author insinuates that Daisy is emotionally immature. She lacks the wisdom to balance her common sense with the way she feels. In other words, her feelings for Giovanelli are so strong that they impel her to carry on her relationship with him despite the consequent damage to her reputation among the cultural elite. Persistent in his pursuit, Winterbourne plays the role of reason by coaxing Daisy away from Giovanelli.
The final scene indicates Winterbourne's sensibility, in addition to his frustration, when he passionately scolds Giovanelli for putting Daisy in danger of illness. The author leaves it to the reader to decide whether Daisy's death signifies distaste for the American romantic mindset or the price of naivety in a sensuously enthralling, but unfamiliar world.