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American Literature 101: Moral Dilemma between Europe and America, Daisy Miller by Henry James


The main aim of the American Literature 101 series is to offer readers prominent authors and their impacts on their time. With their distinctive powers and values, American Literature brought a new impact to world literature. Consisting of different races and identities from all around the world, the United States of America both culturally and literarily has an important place in the world. Key elements are individuality and uniqueness, hence the reader can understand the hidden part of human nature. The huge divergent identical background of the United States of America shows the exceptional nation’s culture and literature. With the corresponding texts, the reader can understand the core of the American culture better. Writers of the United States of America have been gathering striking issues throughout centuries.

American Literature series consist of five main articles:

5. American Literature 101: Moral Dilemma between Europe and America, Daisy Miller by Henry James

American Literature 101: Moral Dilemma between Europe and America, Daisy Miller by Henry James

Since the construction of the United States of America, a conflict between Europe and America has lasted in social, economic, and moral ways. Because of that, most of the writers during the 19th century got impacted by the norms that were constantly embedded in American society by Europeans. The crucial point was that they were not conformed to those roles; on the contrary, they wanted society to question them. With this, they supported rebelling against rules by using the power of literature. James was one of the prominent leaders of this movement in American literature. His works generally juxtaposed characters from separate worlds, the Old World (Europe) and the New World (United States). He wanted to explore how this discrepancy of personalities and cultures influenced the two worlds. He criticized the value of the Victorian era which had an oppressive code of morals and values towards women and mostly emphasize the proper behaviours of women in society. Especially the presence of the Gilded Age was a period of exhibit of obvious materialism and political corruption in U.S. history during the 1870s. It led to producing significant novels of social and political criticism. Henry James was one of them who had a novel about those issues. He removed the theme of the innocence of women by adding new elements of American literature. According to Poetry Foundation, ‘’ Traveling often throughout his long and productive life, Henry James wrote fiction and travel literature about Americans in Europe and Europeans in America during the great epoch of transatlantic tourism and exchange in the second half of the 19th century’’. As a modernist American author, Henry James, handled mostly ethical issues from the perspective of realism. With the sequences in his writings, he questioned the structures of moral codes and representative character of proper American, if it exists. The term of being independent which is associated with the American individual was interpreted wrongly and James aimed to clarify it.

(Henry James, Photograph from Photo Researchers / Alamy)

The story Daisy Miller begins in Switzerland, a popular summer vacation place for wealthy Americans in the 1870s. One of the protagonists Winterbourne, meets Daisy Miller during his visit to his aunt in a Swiss resort. He immediately is impressed by the beauty and attitude of Daisy, however, she is not a proper woman according to Victorian notions. Unlike European women, she does not care about society and acts intimately towards Winterbourne. Firstly, Winterbourne is surprised by the attitude Daisy has, because he is not used to seeing unmarried women having close affinity towards men, but then he wants to introduce Daisy to his aunt. Mrs. Costello rejects to meet Daisy because she heard rumours about the American girl attitude in society and thinks that she is indecent and ordinary for Winterbourne's family. After some months, Winterbourne goes to Rome and hears the accusations about Daisy picking up unknown men and strolling with them in improper places. Even if he tries to warn Daisy about her recklessness, she prefers to shut her ears. A few days later, Daisy catches the Roman fever, which causes her death and before dying, she delivers her mother a message to pass on to Winterbourne. In that message, she states to him that his thoughts about her are valuable in her opinion.

(Daisy Miller)

As creating characters such as Daisy Miller, Henry James explicitly shows the reader an example of the out of structure women according to Europe. She is unmarried, independent, confident and reckless towards society. Daisy has a free spirit, attractiveness, self-reliance, flirty attitudes, and she does not culturally care about Europe. Therefore she rebels against European customs with the power of American culture. As Winterbourne states: ‘’ He was sure she had a spirit of her own; but in her bright, sweet, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony’’ (James, 7). She drives out of the social etiquette that society imposes on her. And she becomes truly a self-decision maker by evaluating her wishes which are detected by herself, not by rules of social manners. She suffers from stereotypes, and her American flirty manner is a tool of opposing those social codes. As Daisy underlines in the book: ‘’ The only thing I don’t like,” she proceeded, “is the society. There isn’t any society; or, if there is, I don’t know where it keeps itself. Do you? I suppose there is some society somewhere, but I haven’t seen anything of it. I’m very fond of society, and I have always had a great deal of it’’ (James, 10). Based on that critique, Daisy is quite aware of the situation that is enforced on her. However; rather than accepting their oppressions, she bravely acts the way she finds right. She exhibits her truly American character and makes the world that she wants to be in. In the novel, there is a conflict between the old and the new world, and Daisy becomes a symbol that represents new world values and customs. Even if she is portrayed as elegant, European society sees her as a common girl who gains new money and does not know proper rules. In this aspect, Daisy’s character and her manners turn into a story that is told among the Europeans. Even though Europeans are not open-minded towards Daisy, she still acts moderately to them. Yet, one can see that Daisy does not count European society as a validation of her existence. Daisy's extraverted and amiable attitude is counted as her flirtatious nature. But, no matter how she seems to enjoy having that, in her inner self she has features of social introverts.

(Daisy Miller, 1974)

Another protagonist Winterbourne who has traditional, conservative, fearful and stable characteristics, exhibits his desire for Daisy. Her flirty and intimate attitudes make her more interesting from the sight of Winterbourne. Also, he thinks that she is innocent no matter what people say about her. Although her commonness does not disturb Winterbourne; he occasionally quarrels with his aunt and even himself about Daisy. Yet, he can not help being interested in her. ‘’As he looked at her dress and, on the great staircase, her little rapid, confiding step, he felt as if there were something romantic going forward. He could have believed he was going to elope with her’’ (James,22). Winterbourne romanticizes his relationship with Daisy, and this is because he is lured by Daisy's beauty and flirtatious nature. However, gossips about Daisy makes him uneasy, and he struggles with the European norms in his inner questioning. As he is truly dependent on the codes, he neglects American values and tries to protect European customs despite being an American man. Winterbourne does not have a free individuality. That is why he enjoys being around Daisy. Viola R. Dunbar mentions in The Revision of Daisy Miller: ‘’In the revision, James makes plain that Daisy is a new experience which Winterbourne doesn’t know how to interpret’’ (Dunbar,315). She is something new for him, a world that he has never encountered before, just like America itself. Reflection of various manners by Daisy leads to consist powerful eagerness to pursue the adventure with her. Still, he prefers to be cold and prudent towards Daisy. He portrays a hesitant and distant attitude especially hearing Daisy's behaviours in Rome. Although he longs to exceed his boundaries with Daisy, he can not go further ahead the social codes. And he persuades himself that Daisy is not innocent.

(Daisy Miller and Frederick Winterbourne, 1974)

To sum up, James takes the idea of innocence and morality, combines them to show the reader the true meaning of American identity and how Europeans easily identify Americans with stereotypes. Evaluating American virtues from the European eyes creates a huge contrast between the two different worlds. The real conflicts in this story are more than social codes. Hence, James handles Europe and America as truly apart worlds in terms of a moral perspective. He proves that there is no exact American character associated with moral codes. Rather than insistently supporting this idea, James portrays two different worlds with their realism and truthness. James proves that the image of a new woman has changed since the construction of America. The theme of innocence which is associated with the obedience of moral codes wipes out from the history of America. The distinction between the old and the new world gets bigger, and Daisy Miller is one of the women who represents the new woman image with her decisions.


James, Henry. Daisy Miller & Other Stories, Wordworth Editions Ltd; 0 edition, 1 Sep. 1997.

Dunbar, Viola R. The Revision of Daisy Miller, Modern Language Notes Vol. 65, No. 5, May, 1950, pp. 311-317 (7 pages).

Dokuz Eylül University, Ake 1004 Survey of American Literature II, Lecture Notes, 12 Mar. 2019.

''Henry James'', Poetry Foundation, retrieved 28 Dec. 2021.

''Gilded Age'' ,Britannica, retrieved 28 Dec. 2021)

Image References

James, Henry [ Portrait]. Photograph from Photo Researchers / Alamy.

Miller, Daisy and Winterbourne, Frederick (1974) [Photography].


Didem Bezek
Didem Bezek
Jan 10, 2022

Great article with the contrast between the two worlds!

Aylin Usta
Aylin Usta
Jan 11, 2022
Replying to

Thank you so much Didem!

Author Photo

Aylin Usta

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