Daisy Miller, by Henry James

Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller is a novella about a young American woman traveling for an extended period in Europe.

Daisy, traveling with her mother and young brother, is from upstate New York, which, compared to where most of the people she meets in their travels are from, is kind of the sticks. And as such a comparative rube, her social style is not a good fit for the circles she now finds herself in.

The people she encounters—some European, but mostly Americans who have moved to Europe or are also traveling in Europe—tend to be conservative stick-in-the-muds whose favorite sport is gossiping about and condemning anyone who doesn’t follow all their asinine social conventions. To them, the free-spirited, flirtatious, spontaneous Daisy is basically a whore.

Among her main sins is that she socializes with young single men. Not that she has sex with them (unless that’s implied but James wasn’t allowed to say it in the 1870s), but she does things like walk in public with them and go to tourist attractions with them. (Wow, what a whore!)

Also, she and her family don’t sufficiently observe class distinctions, as they treat servants and employees and such almost like equals.

The question is whether Daisy is fully aware of all these social rules and is intentionally flouting them because she recognizes how stupid they are, or she is just a naïf who is completely oblivious to what is expected of her.

Her mother, I think, is clueless. As for Daisy herself, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. She has some bimbo characteristics, but I don’t think it’s fair to see her as only that. On the other hand, I don’t think she’s some sort of sophisticated moral philosopher making considered judgments about these social conventions and choosing to be a rebel.

I think she’s mostly just being spontaneous and doing what comes natural, and that she’s somewhat aware of the judgments of others and the social consequences of her behavior, but doesn’t much care. Maybe she underestimates just how much certain things are disapproved of or how severe the consequences of violating these people’s version of propriety can be, but in any case I get the impression it’s not something she has given any deep thought to.

Of all the novels I’ve read, Daisy Miller reminds me the most of Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but really that’s just for the superficial reason that they have similar settings—rich Americans in Europe socializing mostly with other rich Americans, navigating their way through all the elaborate social conventions of that circle. I don’t know that beyond that the novels have all that much in common. Well, other than that they’re both intelligently written sociological and psychological studies.

I’m not going to say that the “do your own thing” 1960s sentiment resulted in any kind of utopia, or even that people who espouse such principles of individuality and non-conformity don’t in some cases hypocritically simply require adherence to some other subgroup social conventions, but on the whole the weakening of the sort of class-based, ritualistic social requirements at work in Daisy Miller is all to the good.

A young American traveling through Europe should be able to walk in public with whomever she pleases, and for that matter get laid every other day by a different guy (or gal) if she pleases, without people imposing suffering upon her through social disapprobation. We are certainly closer to such liberty than we were in James’s time, even if we’re not all the way there. But really why is this even an issue?

It’s not like letting her enjoy her life the way she chooses imposes on anyone else’s freedom, since someone who prefers to follow a more Amish lifestyle or whatever about such things should also be totally free to do that without being punished.

I think some of it relates to the powerlessness of women. Women who saw themselves as upper class in Victorian times didn’t have a whole lot to occupy their minds and time with beyond enforcing idiotic, prudish social rules on each other, so they threw themselves into that activity with a vengeance. You see analogues to that today as well in people who lack more productive outlets, though I have to believe that that phenomenon has lessened—which, again, is all to the good—due in no small part to the women’s movement.

I wonder what we’re to make of the fact that in Daisy Miller, Daisy comes to grief as a result of engaging in socially disapproved behavior, and not, as I might have anticipated, as a result of the disapproval itself? Is it just that the latter would have been a more obvious move, and James didn’t want his book to be too simplistic a condemnation of strict, inhumane social mores?

I’m not going to pretend to be any kind of sophisticated reader of books like this. I know by reputation that James is one of the greatest writers of fiction in history, and that Daisy Miller is one of his greatest works, but had I not known that going in it’s not like I would have come to the same conclusion on my own. I liked the book OK and it made me think a bit, but I’m fully aware that there are whole levels of quality and complexity to a novel like this that I just don’t have access to, any more than I could read a formula-heavy book about some great advance in science and appreciate it the way a scientist could.

I mean, I had zero trouble following the story in Daisy Miller—so I’m not saying it’s somehow like some inscrutable postmodern novel—but a classic like this has a lot more to it than just the surface story, and all but a fraction of that is lost on me.

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