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.
In the charming resort town of Vevey, Switzerland, Winterbourne, a young American expatriate visiting his aunt, meets Daisy Miller, a pretty American girl, and her younger brother, Randolph. Winterbourne, who has lived in Geneva most of his life, is both charmed and mystified by Daisy, who seems to him wonderfully spontaneous, if a little unrefined.
Winterbourne has never heard of a well-brought-up young lady carrying on in this way. Daisy chats freely about herself and her personal life and boasts about her abundance of “gentlemen friends.” He feels he has lived so long in Europe that he has lost any sense of the way Americans express themselves. He wonders if all girls from the state of New York are like this or whether Daisy is a calculating seductress, trying to lure him into an act of impropriety that might obligate him to marry her. However, she seems too unsophisticated to have designs on him. He decides she is simply a harmless American flirt and feels relieved to have hit on a way of categorizing her.
Before long, Daisy announces her desire to visit a local tourist attraction, the famous Chillon Castle, across Lake Geneva, and Winterbourne finds himself in the shocking but rather pleasant position of being expected to take her there, alone and unchaperoned. He is still more shocked when the Millers’ courier, Eugenio, arrives to call the young Millers in to lunch. Daisy addresses Eugenio as an equal and informs him of her plan to go to Chillon with Winterbourne.
Eugenio responds in a tone of ironic disapproval that Winterbourne finds impertinent. He also gives Winterbourne a knowing look that seems to imply that Daisy is in the habit of picking up strange men. As a guarantee of his honorable intentions and general respectability, though more for the benefit of the courier than for Daisy, who seems to have no idea what is going on, Winterbourne promises to introduce Daisy to his aunt.
The narrator of Daisy Miller presents the events as “true”—that is, the narrator tells us the events took place “three or four years ago” to a young man, Winterbourne, with whom the narrator does not claim to be intimately associated but about whom there are many stories. The device of the distant, first-person narrator who knows but is not knowledgeable, who is interested but not involved, has the effect of setting the whole story up within the framework of a piece of gossip. This strategy is ironic, since the story itself is about gossip: the things one hears about people, the assumptions one makes about them based on the things one hears, and the difficulty of judging character based on the stories one hears.
As often happens in the work of Henry James, a number of the novel’s primary themes are established in the opening paragraph, which offers contrasts between old and young, history and novelty, movement and stillness, and American vibrancy and European dignity. The narrator tells us that the selection of hotels that line the lakefront include many different kinds of establishments, from the “grand” hotels “of the newest fashion” to the older boardinghouse-style pensions. The narrator tells us that the Trois Couronnes, the particular hotel in whose garden Winterbourne is sitting, is one of the “classical” variety, distinguished from its “upstart neighbors” by an air of “maturity.” Vevey is filled with American tourists, “stylish young girls” who flit to and fro bringing with them “a rustle of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance music” in the stillness of morning. Set against these vivid images are the European elements, the quiet German waiters who have the bearing and gravity of state officials; the sedate Russian princesses; and the well-behaved little Polish boys whose “governors,” nannies and tutors, accompany them wherever they go. These observations set the stage for the conflicts Daisy and Winterbourne will encounter between American and European values and social expectations.
James had a particular gift for capturing the voice and spirit of childhood, and our first glimpse of young Randolph Miller, as he strolls up the path, poking his alpenstock into everything he sees, including benches, flowerbeds, and the skirts of passing ladies, is wonderfully realistic. Winterbourne’s first introduction to the Millers comes by way of Randolph, who accosts Winterbourne in the garden. Randolph is a significantly American breed of child. Unlike the little Polish boys the narrator has described, Randolph is allowed to roam wild. He has no compunction about approaching a complete stranger and starting a conversation. Clearly, he has never encountered the European view that children should be seen and not heard. Randolph is loud, ill mannered, overly assertive, and self-important. In fact, he very much resembles a particular type of well-to-do American tourist who boasts of his wealth, thinks everything made in America best, and cannot wait to go home.
If Randolph represents “the ugly American,” Daisy may represent the innocent, unworldly America. Like America, she is the beneficiary of a newly created wealth that she displays with more liberality than taste. She is frank, open, uncomplicated, and hopelessly provincial. She thinks the social whirlwind of Schenectady, New York, represents high society and that Europe is “perfectly sweet” but consists entirely of hotels. Daisy has no social graces, such as tact or an ability to pick up signals. She natters on thoughtlessly about whatever is on her mind, happy to regale a complete stranger with details of her family’s personal habits and idiosyncrasies. This self-imposition and self-absorption, both amusing and an affront, suggests qualities of America itself that both attract and repel Europeans.
Very little about Daisy is charming, yet Winterbourne is charmed—partly because her inane chatter represents a novelty and partly because she is inordinately pretty and Winterbourne considers himself a connoisseur of feminine beauty. His inability to read and understand Daisy makes him uneasy. Winterbourne is a man who likes being able to classify and categorize people, and he doesn’t know how to classify Daisy. He spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out where to place her in the scheme of what he knows and understands.