Daisy Miller

by: Henry James

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Gossip

Daisy Miller is a story about gossip couched as a piece of gossip, an anecdote told by a narrator who not only was not involved in the events described but who doesn’t really care very much about them. The narrator sees the whole incident with detached amusement, as a pleasant way of diverting his listeners. Daisy Miller originated with a piece of gossip James had heard from a friend while visiting Rome, but the story had a nonending—someone got snubbed, that was all. James has been criticized for adding the melodramatic element of Daisy’s death. In a sense, though, by underselling the story as a piece of inconsequential gossip, James heightens the poignancy of Daisy’s fate. The fact that Daisy dies and no one seems to care much makes her death all the more sad.

Innocence

Throughout Daisy Miller, Winterbourne is preoccupied with the question of whether Daisy is innocent. The word innocent appears repeatedly, always with a different shade of meaning. Innocent had three meanings in James’s day. First, it could have meant “ignorant” or “uninstructed.” Daisy is “innocent” of the art of conversation, for example. It could also have meant “naïve,” as it does today. Mrs. Costello uses the word in this sense when she calls Winterbourne “too innocent” in Chapter 2. Finally, when Winterbourne protests, twirling his moustache in a sinister fashion, he invokes the third meaning, “not having done harm or wrong.”

This third sense is the one that preoccupies Winterbourne as he tries to come to a decision about Daisy. He initially judges the Millers to be merely “very ignorant” and “very innocent,” and he assesses Daisy as a “harmless” flirt. As the novel progresses, he becomes increasingly absorbed in the question of her culpability. He fears she is guilty not of any particular sex act per se but merely of a vulgar mindset, a lack of concern for modesty and decency, which would put her beyond his interest or concern. One could argue that it is the way in which Daisy embodies all the different meanings of “innocence” that is her downfall.