Name Symbolism and Multilayer Ambiguity in Henry James' "Daisy Miller"

Seminar Paper, 2014

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Beginning with a summary of Henry James’s novella ‘Daisy Miller: A Study’, written in 1887 when the movement of literary Realism was just about to emerge as a counterforce to the exuberance of Romanticism, I will continue to explain the several layers of ambiguity that can be found in this text.

After briefly outlining what are the different layers of ambiguity that can be found here, I will connect his extensive use of polarities to the name symbolism, which not only includes hints as to what will be the characters’ fate or, in the case of Mrs. Costello or Eugenio, might even include an ironic component. I will then pose the question that “torments Winterbourne” (Lode, 19) all throughout the story: Is Daisy’s behavior particularly American, or is it caused by her personal inability to adapt to European standards or simply by her unwillingness? Thus asking if her death was pre-determined because of her typical behavior, of if she died as a martyr of her own belief in personal freedom?

As an example of the Realistic components of the text, I will explain James’s use of types before contrasting this with several romantic elements that can be found and explaining why Daisy could have been originally composed as a Romantic character. The last proof of Romantic elements will be the alignment of ‘Daisy Miller’ and the Aristotelian drama, making Daisy the tragic hero of the story and explaining why James so explicitly emphasized her virtuousness in the end by repeating three times that she was “the most innocent” (James, 63).

My discussion about the meaning of the subtitle however, again brings up the question to what extent this novella can be unambiguously assigned to either literary period, for “precisely because [of] what is forward- looking in James has been so widely and adequately recognized, the provenance of his work in Romantic literary tradition has been […] overlooked” (Foger, 1).

James’s 1887 novella begins with a detailed description of the Swiss town of Vevey, a popular location for all kinds of international travelers due to its proximity to the Castle of Chillon which was made famous by Byron’s famous romantic poem ‘The Prisoner Of Chillon’ in 1816. The reader is then introduced to “a young American” (James, 4) named Frederick Winterbourne, who has spent most of his life in Geneva, “the little metropolis of Calvinism” (4) and who serves as the reflector figure for the rest of the story.

Winterbourne meets Daisy Miller, an American girl travelling Europe accompanied by her mother and brother, outside of his hotel and is completely absorbed right away by her beauty, which he at first ascribes to the appealing physical appearance of American girls in general: “’How pretty they are!’ thought Winterbourne” (6).

As soon as they start a conversation, he is both charmed and bewildered by her conduct which is very unlike that of all the European girls he has thus far encountered. She seems unaware of the well- established conventions of conversation of that time, when she is “not in the least embarrassed” (8) about what Winterbourne considers to be a somewhat awkward little chat. Although he cannot yet make up his mind about whether she is a “coquette” (8), or whether this is simply the way in which all American girls behave, he seems very much attracted by her straight- forward way of talking and by her charm. He goes on contemplating about this question and is “almost grateful” in the end “for having found the formula that applied to Miss Daisy Miller”(12) when he consequently categorizes her as a “pretty American flirt” (12) rather than a coquette.

However, he needs to revise this classification multiple times throughout the course of the story; for the first time, when his aunt, Mrs. Costello, refuses to make Daisy’s acquaintance because she accuses her entire family of being “very common” (17) and disapproves of the way that they all disregard the existing social codes of the high society. She finds it “dreadful” (18) that Daisy is to visit the Castle of Chillon unchaperoned in the company of a man, even if this man is her own nephew, because this kind of behavior by far exceeded the common limits of freedom for young girls at that time. Although Mrs. Costello’s averseness to Daisy leaves Winterbourne a little insecure, he continues to see her and eventually takes her on a trip to the castle, where he finds her only very little interested in historical facts, but rather in personal talks of the most natural kind, asking him, in the end, to travel with them.

When Winterbourne travels to Rome to visit Daisy, for whom he seems to have developed great sympathy, he is distressed to learn that she has become the subject of all talks by spending excessive time with Mr. Giovanelli, whom Mrs. Costello characterizes as a “third- rate- Italian” (32) and whom Winterbourne later rather jealously refers to as her “amoroso” (41). This leads him to revise his image of Daisy Miller for the second time; it is no longer her rather charming unsophisticatedness, but her blunt ignorance of societal boundaries that moves into his focus.

Although both Mr. Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker, a well- respected American lady who has thus far thought Daisy to be simply a little naive, try to warn Daisy about the effect that her behavior has on her reputation, the latter doesn’t listen. At this point, the reader, like Winterbourne, remains uninformed of whether Daisy acts this way quite deliberately and rebelliously, or whether she is simply too innocent or too naïve to grasp the importance of class and convention in the contemporary European society.

The third time that Winterbourne revises his view of Miss Daisy Miller is when he sees her in the Colosseum at midnight together with Giovanelli. He seems shocked and is finally able to emotionally detach himself from her because of her ever so predominant imprudence: “‘I believe that it makes very little difference whether you are engaged or not!’ ” (61). It doesn’t matter to him now, if she is either very audacious or actually rather oblivious because the image of her accompanied by a man in the Colosseum at midnight has repelled him irrevocably.

It is only after Daisy dies of the Roman fever a few days later that Giovanelli’s last statement “’And she was the most innocent’” (63) assures him of her virtuousness. He realizes, at last, that he has terribly misjudged her all along and condemns himself for “hav[ing] lived too long in foreign parts” (64) which made him insensitive to the cultural differences between the Old World and the New.

Although Henry James has often been praised for his many contributions to the period of literary realism, especially his early works have been profoundly influenced by his romantic predecessors, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson

(Rowe, 199). Growing up in the midst of the American romantics, with his father, Henry James Sr, being a Transcendentalist, he has often incorporated romantic themes and motifs, such as the “star- crossed lovers and the hero resisting implacable destiny” (199) into his stories.

With so many social, political and economic modernizations taking place during his creative period, today’s reader will sometimes find it difficult to understand the many ambiguities that he or she encounters while reading James’s work. There was not only his changing preference of Europe over America or America over Europe, but also his Anglo- American ‘audience’ which he “alternately tried to accommodate and resist” (Marglois, Introduction) as well as his “ongoing preoccupation with types, in particular feminine and national ones” (Wardsworth, 43) which can be observed quite well in ‘Daisy Miller’.

Analyzing this novella, we sense a certain fondness of the 18th century and its innumerous behavioral codes and standards. The extensive use of polarities, such as American and European, innocence and experience, impulsiveness and propriety or transparency and misguidance can be seen as a typically realistic attribute that supports the afore- mentioned type- thesis. James’s choice of names for his characters further supports this idea; they seem to be of great significance in order to fully grasp the composition of the different characters and thus provide clues as to what their intentions and attitudes towards certain topics are.

What is fairly obvious is the symbolic nickname for Annie P. Miller, whose flower symbolism suggests prototypical innocence and naturalness. However, one has to note that “pre- Victorian flower symbolism associated the daisy with dissembling” (46) which basically sums up the central question around Daisy Miller’s true intentions in just one name. Her last name Miller of course suggest that her family is newly- rich and thus offers another explanation for her behavior because she might simply not be socially educated enough to know all the standards. For her family, most certainly for her mother, their last name contributes to the picture of plainness, even to the extent of simple- mindedness because she seems to lack any interest in Daisy’s social standing and in Randolph’s education whatsoever.

In clear contrast, maybe even opposing to this female name, stands Mr. Winterbourne, whose name generates associations of iciness and frigidity, which matches his largely restrained character. It is thus striking that, symbolically speaking, winter causes flowers to die because they have no way of surviving underneath the heavy snow, just as Daisy cannot be herself under the burden of societal pressures. After all, Winterbourne’s rather chilly reprehension in Rome might have triggered Daisy’s “more and more extreme demonstrations of her independence” (Lode, 37).


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Name Symbolism and Multilayer Ambiguity in Henry James' "Daisy Miller"
University of Passau
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Henry James, Daisy Miller, Ambiguity
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Anonymous, 2014, Name Symbolism and Multilayer Ambiguity in Henry James' "Daisy Miller", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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