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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary
devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Daisy Miller!