Daisy Miller, a stepping stone for modern feminism, is about a young American woman traveling in Europe with her mother, who encounters Frederick Winterbourne, an American living abroad. Through his novella, Henry James studies, in detail, his title character. What he discovers is Daisy Miller is unbothered by European preconceptions, whereas Frederick Winterbourne, the protagonist, is consumed by them. The broad distinction between the behaviors of Daisy and Winterbourne is that Winterbourne can act as he wishes and can encompass an independent lifestyle without objection, while Daisy can not. The novella implicitly reveals this unjust variation based solely on gender norms. While traditional critics emphasize patriarchal control, feminist readers draw out a counter-image of American womanhood, defined by freedom and breaking social constraints, which acts as an example of societies’ inability to recognize and understand feminism.
Set in the late 18th century, within high-class European society, Daisy Miller portrays a period where feminism was unpopular and undistinguished by society. Throughout the plot, Daisy is continuously rebuked for her defiant actions by those who neither understand nor try to recognize her progressiveness. One of the prime examples where Daisy is chastised would be her entire relationship with Mr. Giovanelli. Daisy and Giovanelli exhibit attributes that shock many of the European- accustomed Americans. They believe the acts Daisy commits are ‘reserved for the interiors of private homes’ (Wardley 15). Daisy erodes the distinctions between private and public spaces further when she elects to ‘walk about the streets of Rome’ or, rather, as she protests to Winterbourne, about the Pincio, which ”ain’t the streets” (James 70). To walk, or as the ironically named Mrs. Walker puts it, to ‘prowl’ unchaperoned will, in her opinion, ruin Daisy’s reputation (James 53). In so saying Mrs. Walker echoes a turn-of-the-century rule of thumb among members of her class that a ‘lady was simply not supposed to be seen aimlessly wandering the streets in the evening or eating alone,’ that such acts were in themselves potentially fatal forms of exposure (Vicinus 297, 218). Daisy Miller engages in what ‘American social critics called ‘public flirtation,” (Wardley 14). While such flirting constituted ‘innocent promiscuity’ (Wardley 14) by most US standards, many of the older women in the book found it shocking and nonconforming to society. This shows how the European society judges and in a sense, blames Daisy for not adhering to the social constraints placed on women. It explains how this society immediately tries to tarnish Daisy and put a scarlet letter on her chest as if she must not be spoken to. It shows how late 18th-century European societies didn’t acknowledge the feminity in Daisy’s character.
It’s important to note that Daisy Miller is told almost entirely through the perspective of Winterbourne. Although the novella mainly focuses is on Daisy, Winterbourne is the lens through which the audience perceives Daisy. Winterbourne having a ‘great relish for feminine beauty, … was addicted to observing and analyzing’ Daisy’s beauty (James 16). Winterbourne spends a lot of his time and energy, analyzing Daisy and her actions, yet he fails to comprehend her motives behind the behavior. He recognizes that Daisy does not fit the role of a ‘sophisticated Europen woman’ and assumes it is her own fault that has made her stick out. He believes her choices to be openly promiscuous are what make her an outcast. It is important to note that Daisy is only an outcast in Winterbourne’s mind and that she, herself, has not placed these tags on her. By suggesting that Daisy castaway, ‘Winterbourne has allowed himself only two possible views of Daisy, good or bad’ (Wilson and Westbrook 270). This further shows how the characters in this story are unable to recognize and identify feminism. Winterborne sees the way Daisy dresses and acts, but instead of attributing that to individuality and feminity, he assumes its because of these factors that she is unable to fit in with the rest of the women.
Winterbourne’s ignorance of Daisy’s true self becomes even brighter towards the end of the plotline. When Daisy dies, Winterbourne is sad, yet he is also relieved to be free of the confusion she has caused him. In a way, Winterborne was ‘angry with himself ‘ (James #). He spent most of the story preoccupied with ‘the right way of regarding Miss Daisy Miller’ (James #). After her death, Winterbourne finds himself returning to his daily routine. Mocking his return, the tale concludes Winterbourne has realized that perhaps he misjudged Daisy. Ohmann explains how, by staying abroad too long, Winterbourne ‘has become too rigid in his values’ (Ohmann 6). Winterbourne represents the assimilation to European customs, contradicting his slow realization that represents society’s failure to recognize and disregard of Daisy’s actions.