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Daisy Miller: Essay Q&A

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1. What causes Daisy's downfall?
Within the logic of the story, at a time when it was believed that malaria was contracted from being out at night in unhealthy climates, it is easy to believe that Daisy dies of Roman Fever because of her ignorant (or innocent) disregard of the advice of many other people. A harsh reading of Daisy might suggest that she is punished for her sins, though her visible sins only include too much public attention to one man.
An intermediate reading of Daisy and her behavior might suggest that Daisy isn't informed about the social expectations of Roman society, and that people in Rome too quickly punish her for the flouting of rules that she doesn't know and doesn't understand. In getting caught in this trap of ignorance and innocence, Daisy rebels against all attempts to control her. As a result, she loses the ability to discriminate between sincere advice and cruel social prejudice. She doesn't listen to advice that might save her life, partly because warnings about fever have been falsely used to control her.
A sympathetic reading of Daisy casts her as the victim of Puritan/Calvinist prejudice against female power. Daisy dies not because of some kind of immoral behavior on her part, but because she refuses to accept the unreasonable and stifling constraints of Roman society. Mrs. Walker, for example, rides out in her carriage to rescue Daisy from a simple walk in a busy park, in the middle of the day, with two men. Mrs. Walker might have turned her back on Daisy in part because of Daisy's refusal to obediently enter Mrs. Walker's carriage.
In the end, the most balanced reading of Daisy's death must account for her capricious treatment of Winterbourne, and for her decision to ignore the advice of Mrs. Walker and Winterbourne. It must also notice that even Winterbourne will behave in a way that he knows is socially unacceptable if he is given the opportunity. Daisy enters an unusually stifling society, and her natural tendency to do things that cause "a little fuss" gets the better of her. The result is that she goes too far.
2. What role does Geneva and its Calvinism play in this story?
Two prominent characters in the story, Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker, come from a long residence in Geneva, which has strong historical ties to John Calvin and his severe interpretation of Christian teaching. Calvin's theology was a strong influence on the Puritan beliefs that informed much of New England culture at that time. Calvin believed that individuals were predestined, or chosen for salvation by God, long before their birth. These were the elect. The elect were expected to adhere to a strict code of moral behavior, including observation of rules about clothing, resting on the Sabbath, and so on.
Winterbourne makes explicit reference to his Geneva background on several occasions, and the story suggests that he acts so freely with Daisy in the beginning partly because he has felt constrained by the rigid structures of Geneva society. When first contemplating Daisy, he wonders what the "rules" are for dealing with someone like her, for example. Winterbourne's link with Geneva, in other words, encourages his misbehavior-either because he feels repressed by its strict control or because it allows him to believe that different rules of behavior govern his relations with Daisy because of who she is. But Winterbourne's "Calvinist" morality also allows him to answer honestly when confronted in the park by Mrs. Walker. He answers gallantly, he feels, that Daisy would do better to enter the carriage and end her promenade with the two men than to continue in public in such a way. Though he is aware of the social response, and he can admit that response when he chooses, he continues to act in what he knows are socially unacceptable ways. His behavior could be considered selfish: there are very few risks for him, as a gentleman, since he is expected to mix freely with various people. He loses nothing by associating with Daisy in public. Daisy, on the other hand, becomes a social outcast for the same behavior.
Mrs. Walker is the clearest embodiment of the social conservatism of Geneva. She clearly disapproves of Daisy's behavior, tries to stop it, and cuts her connection with Daisy when the younger woman fails to acknowledge and respect her wishes.
3. What are Giovanelli's intentions in his relationship with Daisy?
Based on what Giovanelli says at the funeral, he appears to have been actively seeking to marry Daisy. The story does not attempt to explain the extent of their relations beyond the amount of time that they spend together, or the places that they go, or the times at which she receives him in her home. Winterbourne thinks he sees them kissing, or attempting to kiss, in the park, but this is never explored and never proven. Winterbourne also catches them alone in the Colosseum together, at night. He jumps to the conclusion that they had traveled there to consummate their love affair (as Edith Wharton suggests in her similar story, "Roman Fever"). Giovanelli, though, appears to be merely a social climber, not a rake looking for sexual conquests.
It may be that Giovanelli's motivation is not dissimilar to that of Winterbourne. Winterbourne continues his relationship with Daisy in full knowledge that he could be causing a scandal that might harm her. But it appears that he sees an opportunity-to row in the starlight with a beautiful young woman, to be alone in a dark castle with a beautiful young woman, and so on-and he feels that he cannot pass it up. It would seem that to both Giovanelli and Winterbourne, Daisy represents an irresistible opportunity. Giovanelli, an ambitious and attractive young man with little social position or wealth of his own, views Daisy simply as an opportunity, and he cannot resist the possibility of causing a scandal, despite the knowledge that he is doing so.
4. How autobiographical is this story, and are the autobiographical connections important?
There are two strong autobiographical parallels in the story. First, Henry James went to Europe as a child to be educated for a year in Geneva (similar to Winterbourne), and he traveled with his family (similar to Randolph), throughout Europe. James also spent a considerable part of his life as an American in Europe, pursuing the somewhat vague career of being a writer. Second, a cousin of James's, Minny Temple, died of tuberculosis at a young age. Though Minny would become much more extensively portrayed as Milly Theale in Wings of the Dove, she might also be a source for Daisy, though Minny did not shock others in the way that Daisy does. James expressed strong feelings for Minny in his letters, and some critics have argued that James's long celibate life was a result of this early loss of an intimate friend. The possible autobiographical connection between Minny Temple and Daisy can help change the way Daisy is read, too. If Daisy parallels Minny, perhaps James considered Daisy more than just a coquette who receives her just reward.
If Daisy Miller is read as a critique of the unreasonable restrictions on female behavior placed on young women in polite society, then the autobiographical parallels are important because of James's direct knowledge of such restrictions as they applied to women of his acquaintance. James was an upper-class member of the society he writes about, and he had circulated in Roman society before writing about it. The only better authority might have been a young woman who was herself subject to these restrictions, but such a book probably would not have been published in 1878 if it had been written by a woman.
5. Why was Daisy Miller such a popular success?
Daisy Miller became one of James's greatest commercial successes, and there were a number of reasons for this. The most obvious is the shocking nature of the story. (Shocking, that is, to people in the nineteenth century, if not to the modern reader.) The story generated some publicity because of its contents, and this fueled some of the interest that spurred sales. The phrase "Daisy-Millerism" briefly entered the language to describe young women who completely disregarded behavior traditionally considered appropriate for a woman. In this way, the book served moral conservatives as a way to discuss a topic they were concerned about. The book also lacks the sordid detail of an actual affair, so it didn't go too far for most readers.
Daisy Miller has endured as a work of fiction mostly because the title character, Daisy, is likable, but there is an ambiguity that surrounds her. Daisy is a powerful young woman who makes her own decisions, yet she doesn't seem to completely understand the effects of those decisions. The qualities that interest Winterbourne in Daisy, such as her independent, high-spirited nature, and the fact that she seems unknowable (is she a nice, respectable girl or a manipulative flirt?) are the same qualities that interest modern readers in this character. But Daisy remains an enigmatic figure. It doesn't seem clear at the end of the story exactly what kind of person she really is. Nor is it readily apparent why Henry James decided that Daisy must die at the end, although the tragic nature of her death-a young woman succumbing to malaria when all of her life should have been ahead of her-supplies a degree of pathos to the novella that still affects readers today.


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