Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Daisy Miller was one of James’s earliest treatments of one of the themes for which he became best known: the expatriate or footloose American abroad. Americans abroad was a subject very much of the moment in the years after the Civil War. The postwar boom, the so-called Gilded Age, had given rise to a new class of American businessman, whose stylish families were eager to make “the grand tour” and expose themselves to the art and culture of the Old World. Americans were visiting Europe for the first time in record numbers, and the clash between the two cultures was a novel and widespread phenomenon.
James was of two minds about the American character. By temperament, he was more sympathetic with the European way of life, with its emphasis on culture, education, and the art of conversation. Like most Europeans, he saw his compatriots as boorish, undereducated, and absurdly provincial, unaware of a vast and centuries-old world outside their own new and expanding dominions. However, he was also fascinated by the poignant innocence of the American national character, with its emphasis on earnestness rather than artifice. In later novels, such as The Portrait of a Lady and The American,James would continue to explore the moral implications of an artlessness that, like Daisy’s, cannot defend itself against the worldliness and cynicism of a decadent society based, necessarily, on hypocrisy.
If the American abroad was James’s signature theme, that of the unlived life was his almost perpetual subtext. Repeatedly in James’s novels and stories, characters focus their attention on an abstraction, an ideal or idea they feel they could figure out or achieve if only they could devote their spirit or intellectual faculties to it with sufficient understanding or patience. Again and again, they realize too late that whatever it was they sought to understand or achieve, whatever they waited for, has passed them by and that they have wasted their whole life—or, like Winterbourne, they never fully arrive at that realization. One way of looking at Daisy Miller is to conclude that the whole issue of Daisy’s character is beside the point, a red herring that distracts Winterbourne from the business of living. In that case, the heart of the novel would be Winterbourne’s character, and the fear or lack of passion that causes him to hide from life behind the ultimately unimportant conundrum of Daisy’s innocence, or lack thereof.