Daisy Miller

by: Henry James

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Daisy and Randolph

The most frequently noted symbols in Daisy Miller are Daisy herself and her younger brother, Randolph. Daisy is often seen as representing America: she is young, fresh, ingenuous, clueless, naïve, innocent, well meaning, self-centered, untaught, scornful of convention, unaware of social distinctions, utterly lacking in any sense of propriety, and unwilling to adapt to the mores and standards of others. These traits have no fixed moral content, and nearly all of them can be regarded as either virtues or faults. However, Randolph is a different matter. He is a thinly veiled comment on the type of the “ugly American” tourist: boorish, boastful, and stridently nationalistic.

The Coliseum

The Coliseum is where Daisy’s final encounter with Winterbourne takes place and where she contracts the fever that will kill her. It is a vast arena, famous as a site of gladiatorial games and where centuries of Christian martyrdoms took place. As such, it is a symbol of sacrificed innocence. When Daisy first sees Winterbourne in the moonlight, he overhears her telling Giovanelli that “he looks at us as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs!” In fact, the Coliseum is, in a sense, where Winterbourne throws Daisy to the lions and where he decides she has indeed sacrificed her innocence. It is where he decides to wash his hands of her because she is not worth saving or even worrying about.

Rome and Geneva

Daisy Miller’s setting in the capitals of Italy and Switzerland is significant on a number of levels. Both countries had strong associations with the Romantic poets, whom Winterbourne greatly admires. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein takes place largely in Switzerland, and Mary Shelley wrote it during the time that she, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron sojourned at Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley and John Keats are both buried in the Protestant Cemetery, which becomes Daisy’s own final resting place. For the purposes of Daisy Miller, the two countries represent opposing values embodied by their capital cities, Rome and Geneva. Geneva was the birthplace of Calvinism, the fanatical protestant sect that influenced so much of American culture, New England in particular. Geneva is referred to as “the dark old city at the other end of the lake.” It is also Winterbourne’s chosen place of residence.

Rome had many associations for cultivated people like Winterbourne and Mrs. Costello. It was a city of contrasts. As a cradle of ancient civilization and the birthplace of the Renaissance, it represented both glory and corruption, a society whose greatness had brought about its own destruction. Rome is a city of ruins, which suggest death and decay. Rome is also a city of sophistication, the Machiavellian mind-set. In a sense, Rome represents the antithesis of everything Daisy stands for—freshness, youth, ingenuousness, candor, innocence, and naïveté.