Sunday, 30 August 2015

On "Daisy Miller"

Daisy Miller, the young American woman in Europe in Henry James's story, may not rank as highly as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Natasha Rostova, the greatest female characters written by men, because we do not have access to her thoughts. She nevertheless has a vivid existence even if said to embody the innocence, naivete and uncultured, uncivilised, natural quality of America as opposed to the culture, civilisation, formality, good manners or rigidity and hypocrisy of Europe. 
The story is about Daisy Miller as seen by Winterbourne, and our perception of her changes as his attitude changes. At 1st, when they're alone, that is, away from "society", he's utterly charmed and enthralled by her. Daisy Miller is charming indeed, in her innocence, talkativeness, free spirit and naturalness, charming like Shakespeare's Rosalind or Jane Austen's Mary Crawford (whereas I don't think anyone can be charmed by the women George Eliot describes as charming). In this part, Mrs Costello looks like a rigid, narrow-minded, prejudiced woman. Even when Daisy starts to show her shallowness and frivolity and some recklessness, she's still marvellously charming. 
Then there's a shift in the story- a change in space (move to Rome), in environment (Daisy now seen in society and judged by society) and in perspective. There is a slight difference in the way Winterbourne looks at her now, as he tries to defend her and at the same time to warn and influence her. Daisy is simultaneously fascinating in her audacity, irritating in her stubbornness and indifference to public opinion and pitiful when people evade her and speak contemptuously of her. 
As she becomes more reckless and defiant in her relations with the Italian Mr Giovanelli, and therefore more or less made an outcast, Winterbourne again changes in his feelings towards her, his estimation of her: 
"He could hardly have said why, but she struck him as a young person not formed for a troublesome jealousy. Smile at such a betrayal though the reader may, it was a fact with regard to the women who had hitherto interested him that, given certain contingencies, Winterbourne could see himself afraid- literally afraid- of these ladies. It pleased him to believe that even were 20 other things different and Daisy should love him and he should know it and like it, he would still never be afraid of Daisy. It must be added that this conviction was not altogether flattering to her: it represented that she was nothing every way if not light." 
Then his feeling again changes. The ending has the indirectness and ambiguity people talk about when talking about Henry James. What is the injustice to which Winterbourne refers? The lines "It doesn't matter now what I believed the other day!" and "I believe it makes very little difference whether you're engaged or not!", and his attitude towards her on the last night. What James does to Daisy Miller in the end may have an abruptness that seems too much like a contrivance, a confused resolution, but it isn't necessarily unconvincing. One may argue that it's Winterbourne's attitude that pushes her over the edge, that is responsible for her reckless decision and its consequences. 
A beautiful story. The 2 most moving scenes are when Daisy realises Mrs Costello, Winterbourne's aunt, refuses to see her, and she pretends not to care; and when Mrs Miller gives him her message. Other people might be interested in the clash of values between Europe and America, I'm more interested in Daisy Miller and the change of perspective. 

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