Commentary by Karen Bernardo
There are certain periods in history which serve as great cultural watersheds—eras in which the normal conventions and expectations of society are in flux, as the entire society moves from one type of culture to another. In his novella Daisy Miller, Henry James shows how during the late Victorian era, a newly-affluent moneyed middle class began moving into social territory formerly considered the sole province of aristocracy.
The novella opens by describing the ambiance of the European hotels frequented by American and English tourists at the turn of the century. Of course, before the rise of a middle class wealthy enough to afford such vacations, the clientele of hotels such as the one at Vevey had been exclusively aristocratic. However, the incursion of “common” people into this social setting has already had an effect. It has forced the ranks of the certifiably aristocratic to tighten against the invaders, much as the American pioneers pulled their covered wagons into tight circles to make them more easily defensible against Indian attack.
And this is not a bad analogy, as one realizes that despite the Continental setting of the novella, all the characters are expatriated Americans. The situation seems ironic; the Costello-Winterbourne-Walker set are in Europe, attending society functions that make them feel like European aristocracy, all the while fiercely resenting the sound of wealthy but common people like the Millers knocking at their gates.
Frederick Winterbourne enters the picture as one who is, essentially, as innocent of social dynamics as he perceives Daisy Miller to be. We are talking about two different kinds of innocence, though. Daisy, who is a spoiled, over-indulged, but fascinating girl, refuses to acknowledge that any faint hope she or her mother may have of entering the “polite” society of these expatriated Americans lies in her conforming to their rules. Winterbourne, for his part, accepts these rules and standards as simple expressions of the dynamics of how society runs: that they were "man-made" rather than somehow “God-given” never enters his head. He is as incapable of reading bigotry and class-consciousness into his own standards as Daisy is of learning all the thousands of subtle rules she would need to master in order to fit in.
So essentially, Winterbourne misunderstands on three separate levels. He misunderstands society because he assumes that Daisy will fit right in. For example, he asks permission to introduce her to his aunt, who functions here in the role of familial “gatekeeper”—and he is surprised and dismayed when his aunt refuses to even meet her. “They are the sort of Americans that one does one’s duty by not accepting,” she tells him, thus conveying in no uncertain terms that Daisy is not the type of girl one’s family would be interested in from a marital standpoint. That this does not put an end to his relationship with Daisy is only acceptable because Winterbourne is male; as his aunt says, “A man may know everyone. Men are welcome to the privilege!” Winterbourne is not prohibited from seeing Daisy, but he has been warned that if he chooses to continue a relationship with her, it should be done discreetly. This is to say, he should keep her in the closet and see her on the sly—something he refuses to do.
But just as he mistakes social intolerance for social propriety, he also mistakes Daisy’s ingenuousness for innocence. Read carefully (and one must always read James’ dialogue very, very carefully), and it is clear that Daisy is not innocent at all; she is deliberately rebellious. Consider the conversation with Mrs. Walker, who seeks to save Daisy from the disgrace of being seen with two men and no chaperone. First Daisy questions the supposed nature of the damage done to her reputation—“Talked about? What do you mean?”—and then she adds, “I don’t think I want to know what you mean. I don’t think I should like it.” Daisy knows precisely what Mrs. Walker means, but she also knows she has no way of making reparations because she has no real place on Mrs. Walker’s side of the social fence.
Winterbourne has undoubtedly encountered people who live outside the bonds of polite society, but never anyone who deliberately chooses to rebel against it, and thus he mistakes Daisy’s flouting of convention for mere social gaffes. In this way, it can also be argued that Winterbourne misunderstands himself. He thinks he is open-minded in accepting Daisy into his set; he does not understand the extent to which he represents the old guard, the dying order from which Daisy is completely apart. He also has no idea of the extent to which he perceives Daisy only through that order’s eyes. His belief that “she was too light and childish, too uncultivated and unreasoning, too provincial, to have reflected upon her ostracism or even to have perceived it” is in direct conflict with Daisy’s perceptive realization that his aunt did not want to meet her, and why: “She doesn’t want to know me. . . . Why don’t you say so? You mustn’t be afraid. I’m not afraid.”
But most significantly of all, Winterbourne’s contact with Daisy, which had the capacity to be a life-transforming experience for him, did not have any lasting effect on his social relations or his place in society. The end of the novella finds him back in Geneva, pursuing exactly the same lifestyle in which he was engaged before he met her. Daisy’s rejection of social convention and her wholehearted embrace of life could have liberated Winterbourne, but it did not, because he never understood what it was all about. However, there were many families like the Millers at the turn of the century, just as there were many families like the Winterbournes, and as time passed the aristocracy of heritage inexorably fell before the onslaught of the aristocracy of money.
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