Daisy Miller: A Study
Genre: Short Story
- Kennedy, Meegan
- Date of entry: Jun-29-2004
Winterbourne, an American who has been living in the decorous city of Geneva, visits his aristocratic aunt in Vevey (Switzerland) and there meets a lovely American "girl," Daisy Miller, traveling with her ineffective mother and undisciplined younger brother. Daisy puzzles Winterbourne by her apparently artless combination of "audacity" and "innocence," as when she arranges that he should take her, alone, to see a castle. Later, in Rome, Daisy befriends what Winterbourne's aunt calls "third-rate Italians," in particular Mr. Giovanelli. She refuses the anxious advice of her friends in the American "colony" there, and her adventures escalate: walking alone with Giovanelli, unsupervised tête-à-têtes with him.
When Winterbourne finds Daisy lingering with Giovanelli, near midnight, in the Coliseum, he is relieved that the enormity of her behavior here allows him to place her at last, but he warns her of the "villainous miasma" of the arena nonetheless. Sure enough, Daisy sickens and dies of malaria--but a word from Giovanelli at her graveside convinces Winterbourne that he and the others wrongly condemned her all along. Daisy Miller was, after all, not "bad," but simply a "pretty American flirt."
Daisy Miller, and Other Stories
Oxford Univ. Press
1985 (repr. 1998)
There are several literal references to illness in this story. Besides Daisy's malaria, Mrs. Miller and the rest of the family (excluding Daisy) suffer from dyspepsia, a common gastric ailment in prosperous nineteenth-century Americans, although the mother's dispirited, low-energy affect, difficulty sleeping, and nerves suggests what we would now see as depression.
But what makes this story interesting is the way James uses illness to figure sexual contamination and social disfavor. Although Daisy eventually succumbs to what was termed "Roman fever," her malaria merely literalizes her supposed infection with a different kind of "fever," which the American expatriates and tourists have already diagnosed--a fever brought on by her apparently "light" (loose) sexual escapades with Italian men. James's story, posed as a case "study," illuminates how our culture imagines sexuality as a kind of disease that, past a certain point, is deemed fatal.
As Winterbourne, and the reader, cast about for an adequate "diagnosis" for Daisy, his difficulty implicitly interrogates the cultural categories we feel compelled to apply to women in particular. He considers, and discards, the terms "an American girl," "coquette," "innocent," "flirt," "common," "ignorant," "bad," "vulgar," "a nice girl," and "a young lady du meilleur monde" to describe Daisy, before settling on "a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect" and "a clever reprobate." Sadly, by the time Winterbourne realizes that his diagnosis was wrong, the patient is dead.