The Clash of Conventions in Henry James' "Daisy Miller"

Essay, 2007

6 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Kerstin Köck (Author)


Topic: The Clash of Conventions in Henry James' “Daisy Miller”.

The following essay will examine the clash of conventions in Henry James' novella “Daisy Miller”. In this story the reader is confronted with the new American way of life and the old European one. This collision of two completely different worlds leads inevitably to problems. On the one hand there is Europe with its correctness and customs, the old conventions and its moral values. On the other hand wehave America which stands for naivetyand spontaneity.

First of all this clash of social conventions shall be generally analysed in an examination of the discrepancy between the values and norms of the European and the American society, then between the two main characters Daisy Miller and her counterpart Mr Winterbourne, and at last in the characters of Mrs Miller and Mrs Costello.

The principles of the European world are very old fashioned and stiff, something the character Daisy Miller either cannot understand or simply does not want to accept: “I don't see why I should change my habits for them” (James: 40). Societythere findsit inappropriate for a young unmarried woman to beseen in public alone with a gentleman whom she is not related to, but Daisy strolls around in Rome with Mr Giovanelli, an Italian. [. ] “[I]t is not the custom here” as Mrs Walker says (James: 35). This is also supported by a comment made by Mr Winterbourne “[W]hen you deal with natives you must go by the custom of the place. Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn't exist here. So when you show yourself in public with Mr Giovanelli, and without your mother-“ [.] (James: 40).

Mrs Costello's remark that “The girl goes about alone with her foreigners” (James:26)is one made with a negative undertone, as she can neither condone nor understand Daisy Miller's behaviour. Such behaviour leads to rumours being spread about her and soon all members of polite society start to stareat her in the streets. People forma bad opinion of Daisy and laterevenbeginto shunher.

Furthermore, society thinks that women should not be out on the streets at night. “I am going to the Pincio,” Daisy Miller says, “Alone, my dear - at this hour?” asks Mrs Walker (James: 30).Later in the text Daisy explains that she wants totake awalk with her male Italian friend. Mrs Walker's question shows that Daisy's way of thinking and acting is generally disapproved of in Europe. People do not want tosee her around when “[t]he afternoon” is “drawing to a close” (James:30).

Further evidence for the old norms in Europe can be found on page 6: “Even a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely occurring conditions”. This shows that even men arenot allowed to talkto a lady they arenot acquainted with without society finding their conduct improper. From this one can conclude that especially Daisy'shabit of speaking to strange men in public was seen to be particularly fatal. Girls not following these rules are simply seen as flirts, not as women to be taken seriously.

Moreover, women should be reserved when talking to a foreigner or a man they do not really know. They are supposed to blush when a man addresses them directly. They should behave in a decent way and be shy in the presence of men.This can be seen clearly by Mr Winterbourne's observations on page 7 [.] “she was not in the least embarrassed herself” and later when he remarks [.] “she was evidently neither offended nor fluttered”.

“[S]he was not fluttered; she avoided neither his eyes nor those of any one else; she blushed neither when she looked at him nor when she saw that people were looking at her” (James: 23).

All these norms and values ofEuropean society stand in complete contrast to the values of American society and the American way of life. Americans do not find it inappropriate when a girl talks to a stranger in public or is familiar with him,even ifbothof themare not married.

The clash of conventions is also reflected in thetwo main characters Daisy Miller and Mr Winterbourne, the former representing the “American world”, andthe latter the “European world”.

Daisy Miller as a representative of the “new world” stands for innocence and naivety: “She seemed to him, in all this, an extraordinary mixture of innocence and crudity” (James:25). Moreover, on page 51: “And she was the most innocent.”

This innocence is expressed in her way of speaking, which is also typical ofthe modern way of life.She always speaks openly about what she thinksor what annoys her. She is honest and not in the least reserved. She does not hold back her anger, which can be seen on page 24 “I think you're horrid!” [.] “And for the next ten minutes she did nothing but call him horrid.” A European lady would never ever have said this in public to a young man whom she has not known long. She behaves naturally and innocently, and there is nothing insincere about her. Furthermore, she never stops talking about the mysterious woman whom she thinks is the reason for Winterbourne's return to Geneva (James: 25).

However, this frankness does not extend to her real feelings for Mr Winterbourne; in this case she is very uncommunicative.

Moreover, Daisy Miller expresses herself in language that is considered inappropriate by Europeans and she gives the impression of being uneducated. This can be seen when they visit the old castle: “But he saw that she cared very little for feudal antiquities, and that the dusky traditions of Chillon made buta slight impression upon her” (James: 23).

In addition, she wants to have complete freedom and rejects any attempts to impose restrictions on her life. She does not listen to any advice others tryto give her. She wants to go her own way, without the interference of anyone, listening neither to her mother, nor to Mrs Walker. Even when Mrs Walker tries to stop her from walking around in Rome with Mr Giovanelli, Miss Daisy Miller refuses to take her advice seriously. Daisy refuses to get into her carriage as she does not want her freedom to be restricted (see James: 34/35). Furthermore, this wish for personal freedom can be seen in Daisy's answer to Mr Winterbourne when he tries to persuade her not to stroll around with an Italian: “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do” (James: 32).

In addition, Daisy Miller seems to be superficial and interested only in material things, such as her hairdo and the latest fashion [...] “[S]he had had ever so many dresses and things from Paris” (James: 10). She even mentions the fashion trends in Europe in front of Mr Winterbourne: “But I needn't have done that for dresses. I am sure they send all the pretty ones to America; you see the most frightful things here.” (James: 10). Daisy can talk about these things endlessly.

On the other side there isMr Frederick Winterbourne, a man born in the cold months, as the name implies. This character represents the European world. “[H]e” is “an extremely amiable fellow, and universally liked” (James: 4). He always wants to fit into society and does not want to stand out. He would never show his emotions publicly, as Daisy does. In a way,he hides his real feelings behind a facade which never changes and allows no insights into his real thoughts. For him it is very important to stick to conventions and not to lose face. Even his opinion about Daisy Miller is greatly influenced by the opinion of the others, who think she is simply a flirt.

Moreover, Mr Winterbourne is highly educated as he is “studying” - if what he is doing there canbe called studying -inGeneva(see James:4)andhe knows a lot of things for example,about the castle. On page 24 Daisy says: “I never saw a man that knew so much!” In addition, he seems very sophisticated,which is expressed inhis diction when he wants to take a boat trip with Daisy in the night “Do, then, let me give you a row” (James:21).

However, in Daisy's eyes he is“too stiff” (James: 39 and 40) and not relaxed enough. Frederick Winterbourne wants tobe in control of every single situation and wants everything to be done with the greatest propriety.

In her opinion heis incapable of showing his emotions publicly and cannot “come out of his shell”. Mr Winterbourne always sticks to the rules and conventions. [...] “[O]ne must always be attentive to one's aunt” (James: 13). This attitude runs through his entire life and determines how he treats Daisy Miller.

In the end the clashbetween these two characters manifests itself in their misconceptions, and as a consequence of these prejudices their feelings for each other die.

The last part of the essay will examine the clash of conventions in the characters of Mrs Miller, Daisy's mother and Mrs Costello, Mr Winterbourne's aunt. Mrs Miller represents the New World,America. She does not care very much about her two children Daisy and Randolph, being too preoccupied with her own illnesses and affairs. Mrs Miller is notable to take care of her nine- year-old son Randolph. She even does not even manage to get him to go to bed (see James: 18). She hands overa mother's responsibility to her courier Eugenio.

Moreover, she is a mother figurewho exercises little control over her daughter, allowing her togo out with men whomshe has not even met. Mrs Miller does not find it necessary to interfere withher daughter's life when she is about to ruin her reputation. She even permits Daisy to visit the old castle alone with Mr Winterbourne and to do as she wants: “Well, if Daisy feels up to it” (James: 20).


Excerpt out of 6 pages


The Clash of Conventions in Henry James' "Daisy Miller"
University of Stuttgart
Catalog Number
clash, conventions, henry, james, daisy, miller
Quote paper
Kerstin Köck (Author), 2007, The Clash of Conventions in Henry James' "Daisy Miller", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Clash of Conventions in Henry James' "Daisy Miller"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free