What kind of character is Winterbourne? How might James have presented him differently if he had intended him to be a romantic hero?
At first glance, Winterbourne seems the ideal type of romantic hero, but the more we get to know him, the more shallow and unimpressive he seems. This change is largely a function of the way in which he responds to his aunt’s views about Daisy. He defends Daisy feebly and takes his aunt’s opinion very much to heart. We are told that “he immediately perceived, from her tone, that Daisy Miller’s place in the social scale was low.” Winterbourne accepts his aunt’s judgment as fact. He listens “with interest” to her “disclosures” about the courier, rather than ignoring, dismissing, or hearing them with the same sort of amused tolerance with which he treated Randolph’s similarly strong pronouncements about American candy and American men.
James could have made Winterbourne a very different sort of person. If this were to be a love story, for instance, and Winterbourne its romantic hero, James could have shown him to be defiant and unconcerned with his aunt’s judgments and prejudices. Or he could have made Winterbourne kind and tolerant of his aunt but essentially independent minded. Instead, in Chapter 2, James begins painting the picture of a man who is weak, albeit in a complicated way. More than anything else, Winterbourne is impressionable—the degree to which he is easily impressed may actually be his salient characteristic. He is equally impressed by Daisy and by his aunt. In short, Winterbourne is a rather shabby protagonist, a young man who is completely a product of his environment and of the values of the society that has produced him.
How do you think James wants us to view the Millers’ relationship with servants?
For Winterbourne’s aunt, Mrs. Costello, to dismiss the entire Miller family merely because they allow the courier to sit with them in the garden in the evening may seem ridiculous, and James may even want it to seem ridiculous. Certainly, he wants us to find it funny that Randolph likes to talk to waiters and that the courier should be the only member of the Miller household who can get him to go to bed. However, the Millers’ relationship with Eugenio is actually a little sad. Their treating the courier like a friend is probably a function of the democratic American mindset, since Americans did not notice class distinctions the way Europeans did. However, the Millers also speak of Eugenio as a friend—trustingly, almost affectionately. Daisy quotes him incessantly and teases him to his face. This, and not anything more sinister or sexual, is what Mrs. Costello means by “intimacy.” Eugenio, for his part, clearly has nothing but contempt for the Millers. He not only finds them vulgar but assumes they are too stupid to pick up on it when he makes his opinion clear to Winterbourne. It is ironic that the Millers’ courier should have more sense of propriety than they do, and he seems to be well aware of that fact and to despise them for it.
Daisy’s conversation with the chambermaid about Winterbourne’s aunt is another matter. This sort of openness is a break with convention on an entirely different level, one that goes beyond matters of upbringing or custom. Grilling a hotel chambermaid on the habits and character of a fellow guest is simply vulgar, and telling Winterbourne that she has done so is even more vulgar.
1. Why do you think James chose to call his heroine “Daisy Miller”? Do the names “Winterbourne,” “Mrs. Walker,” and “Giovanelli” seem significant or perhaps ironic in any way?
2. Discuss the importance of setting in Daisy Miller.
3. How does health function differently for different characters in the novel? In the case of Daisy’s illness, might any symbolism be at work?
4. Daisy makes two trips to architectural sites—the castle at Chillon and the Coliseum. How are they different? What, if anything, do they reveal about her character?
5. Discuss Daisy’s relationship with Mr. Giovanelli. How does it differ from her relationship with Winterbourne?
6. Is Daisy Miller more about our discovering what kind of person Daisy is or what kind of person Winterbourne is? Defend your answer.
7. Some of James’s contemporaries thought his portrait of Daisy insulting to Americans. Can you suggest why?