I hardly know whether it was the analogies or the differences that were uppermost in the mind of a young American, who, two or three years ago, sat in the garden of the ‘Trois Couronnes,’ looking about him, rather idly, at some of the graceful objects I have mentioned.
One of the most notable aspects of Daisy Miller is the narrative voice that James chose to recount the story of Winterbourne and Daisy. It is a curiously hybrid voice, neither omniscient nor personally involved. The conventional narrative options open to James were first person, third-person omniscient, and third-person limited perspective, which is in fact the voice in which the vast majority of Daisy Miller is told. The voice is third person, and the limited perspective is that of Winterbourne. Before settling into this voice, however, James introduces the third-person narrator by having him speak in the first person—as in this quotation from early in Chapter 1. It is a transitional sentence that takes us from the initial panning shot of the town of Vevey to a close-up of the central character.
In this quote, the voice of the narrator is breezy and conversational, and like the statement that the scene we are zooming in on occurred “two or three years ago,” it has the effect of seeming to place the entire novel within the framework of a particularly delicious piece of gossip. At the end of the novel, after Daisy’s death, this voice resurfaces briefly, just long enough to relay the latest piece of gossip about Winterbourne, which turns out merely to reiterate this first report.
I haven’t the least idea what such young ladies expect a man to do. But I really think that you had better not meddle with little American girls that are uncultivated, as you call them. You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake.
Mrs. Costello says these words to Winterbourne when they discuss Daisy in Chapter 2. The passage is an instance of foreshadowing, as it looks forward to the novel’s closing paragraphs, in which Winterbourne acknowledges to his aunt that he misjudged Daisy and tells her she was right about him having been “booked to make a mistake.” This mistake may be only Winterbourne’s error of judgment, the mistake of having misread Daisy. The context, however, implies that the mistake is more than this—some sort of error of omission, something he might actually have done in the context of his relationship with Daisy to change the course of events. After all, Mrs. Costello had warned him against making “a great mistake,” and he tells her that is what happened. Particularly ironic and poignant is the fact that Winterbourne went back to Geneva, where he is the subject of the same rumors that there have always been about him. The implication is that whatever it was he learned has had no effect on him. His easy return to his former life suggests that the episode with Daisy may as well have never taken place.