Daisy Miller Summary

Henry James

Daisy Miller

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Daisy Miller Summary

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Henry James establishes the setting for Daisy Miller as a beautiful resort town in Switzerland called Vevey that is populated in the summer months by many tourists and is a favorite spot for Americans on vacation. There are all classes of hotels and inns in the area and one of the finest in particular is where the opening action of Daisy Miller occurs. It is here that the first character introduced in the Henry James story appears. His name is simply Winterbourne and he is described as being a thoughtful and amicable young man who was there to see his aunt, although he came from Geneva just before, where he visits and is “very devoted to a lady who lived there—a foreign lady—a person older than himself.” The reader is left to speculate on this relationship, between Winterbourne and an older woman, but it is clear that he is well-traveled and despite being an American, was educated in Europe, thus giving him a nuanced understanding of European culture—surely more understanding than any of the American tourists would likely have. With that in mind, it should be noted that the fine hotel is not European-looking so much as reminiscent of hotels in fine American cities and with the same atmosphere.

Winterbourne finds that his aunt has a headache and will not be seen so he sits down at for breakfast at a café. After finishing, a small, well-dressed American boy comes along and asks, without manners, for a lump of sugar in a voice that was “immature yet somehow not young” and who goes on to comment on “old Europe” with disgust and seems only to want American things, such as American candy. Upon finding out that Winterbourne too is American, even though Winterbourne reflects he was this child’s age upon coming to Europe.

Interrupting his reverie, a woman approaches, calling after the boy who says American men are the best and as Winterbourne sees the figure approaching, he replies that American women are the best. The woman who approaches is very well-dressed as well with a “hundred frills and frounces” and proceeds to scold the boy who his clearly her young brother. Winterbourne is used to the highly formal introductions of unmarried ladies to men but realizes this is not in order with American girls and for a moment, doesn’t know what to say. He listens as the girls scolds her brother more and finds that they are considering going into Italy. He asks what mountain they are preparing to go over but neither know, to them it’s just “some mountain” and Randolph, the young boy wonders if he can find American candy there.

At first the girl, Daisy Miller, as we will find her name to be, ignores Winterbourne but as he begins telling her about the local landscape, she pays more attention until she finally is directly looking and listening with a gaze that is “immodest” especially so to Winterbourne who is used to European social conventions. He notices how beautiful and fresh the girl is and thinks she is a coquette. (A coquette is basically an old-fashioned term for an expert flirt). Winterbourne finds out the two are from New York State and that they are heading to Italy in the winter. Her brother tells him her name is actually Annie P. Miller but she insists on Daisy and Randolph blurts out that their father is still in New York and that he is a very rich man. Winterbourne also finds that Randolph is not traveling with a teacher. In this manner they sit and talk, with Daisy, whom the narrator says “chattered” talking endlessly about her family.

Winterbourne is not used to the boldness and directness of an American girl like Daisy Miller and he enjoys himself and constantly admires her beauty and manner. She goes on to talk about how all of her friends had been to Europe and how some of her best dresses came from Paris but she states, very casually, that she doesn’t like the society in Europe. She claims there is no society at all and she can’t find anything like in America. It should be noted here that by “society” Daisy means social gathering—it’s society in a more local sense. She says how many dinners were given for her, how many were from gentlemen and, as she adds with emphasis, she always loved and had a lot of attention from gentlemen.

With all of this rush of information from this very forward young lady Winterbourne is “amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed.” Being out of touch with American women’s forwardness for so long Winterbourne wonders if all girls in New York were like this one or if “they were all like that…or was she designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person” (which is a question the reader will keep trying to answer as well). He notices she looks innocent but considers her a flirt.

Daisy Miller points out an old castle far off and says she’d like to see it and Winterbourne offers to accompany her—with her mother, of course, he adds. She doesn’t realize the social custom of being accompanied by an older woman and says her mother hates afternoon drives and that maybe they could get their servant Eugenio to watch Randolph while the two go alone—a rather shocking suggestion that goes against all European social conventions about men and women together. She suggests that go alone, an offer that is frowned upon by Eugenio, her courier, whom Winterbourne considers to be insulting without considering that he is fed up with this American family and its whims—not to mention the Millers’ lack of sophistication and culture.

With all of this in his mind, Winterbourne goes to see his aunt, Mrs. Costello, and asks if she’s heard of the Miller family. She is appalled by them, in fact, and calls them “very common” which suggests they are not to be accepted within society in Europe and scorns that they are casual with their courier and that he sits with them in the evening. Although Winterbourne calls Daisy “uncultivated” he sees her as innocent and announces his intention to go to the castle with her nonetheless and is a bit dismayed that his aunt refuses to meet her. It turns out, however, that Daisy hears about his aunt and she is pouty when he tries to give her excuses about her ill health.

As the two talk, Daisy’s odd and withdrawn mother approaches, seeming to be embarrassed and feeling as though she leave the two alone. Winterbourne and Mrs. Miller are introduced and he notices that like her daughter, Daisy’s mother lacks any sense of formality. When the adventure to the castle on their own comes up, Winterbourne is surprised that Mrs. Miller offers to objection and seems almost afraid of provoking a negative response in her daughter. Daisy suddenly asks Winterbourne to take her in a boat to the castle immediately, despite the late hour and darkness. As she is prepared to go, Eugenio steps out of the darkness and Daisy’s mother tells him to tell Daisy not to go. He scolds her and Winterbourne is bothered again at the level of influence a mere courier (a true commoner) has on their lives. She suddenly gives up because Winterbourne didn’t produce a “fuss” over her and insults him lightly, thus leaving Winterbourne to go off, completely puzzled, even though the narrator of “Daisy Miller” skips ahead and presents the two at the Chillon castle days later.

As the two set out for the castle, the narrator discusses Daisy Miller’s clothing and while Winterbourne admires her beauty, he notices she doesn’t seem the least bit excited to be out with him, even though she chats incessantly. In the castle she feigns great interest but is more interested in asking Winterbourne about himself. Winterbourne paid the tour guide a sum to leave them alone for the most part and he enjoys this usually forbidden opportunity to be alone with a lady. Eventually, he announces that he will be leaving to go back to Geneva and Daisy positively flips out, immediately accusing him of having a “charmer” or lover there. He begs her off and the two agree that they will see one another in Rome in the winter. Daisy is much quieter on the way back. Winterbourne goes to see his aunt one more time and she is very shocked that the girl went with him alone.

It is winter and Winterbourne goes to Rome and seeks out his aunt, who tells him that Daisy Miller is associating with Italian commoners, many of whom appear rich and fancy, but who are fortune-hunters whom she takes into the homes of upper-crust society people to everyone’s dismay. His aunt considers the Millers to be deplorable people but Winterbourne thinks to himself that, “they are very ignorant—very innocent only. Depend upon it they are not bad.” Winterbourne goes to visit a friend of his named Mrs. Walker—an American abroad—and encounters Randolph, rude as ever, followed closely by Daisy, who scolds him roughly for not seeking her out and then proceeds to try to make him jealous by talking about one of her Italian man friends named Mr. Giovanelli.

When he arrives, Daisy’s mother is there, complaining about her health and as Daisy scolds Winterbourne, even Mrs. Walker becomes sympathetic to Winterbourne as she can tell how rude Daisy is being to an admirer who came far expecting her to fall into his arms and be glad to see him. Daisy invites Mr. Giovanelli to Mrs. Walker’s party and announces she is going to meet a friend—presumably Giovanelli and her friends and family warn her about catching a fever in the ruins of the city, warnings that she casts aside. She asks Winterbourne to walk her into the city to meet the man but after walking for a time, he refuses to help her find him but he is spotted ahead and it is too late.

Winterbourne does not like the looks of the Giovanelli gentleman and tells Daisy so immediately, which angers Daisy. She makes introductions and Winterbourne sees clearly that this man is practiced at wooing American rich girls and wonders if, in fact, Daisy Miller is a nice girl or not yet again. Suddenly, Mrs. Walker, appalled that Daisy is behaving so in public, comes out in her carriage and attempts to tell Daisy to get in. Daisy says she is “enchanted” where she is and Mrs. Walker grows more angry and insistent, saying, “it may be enchanting, dear child, but it is not the custom here” and that she should walk with her mother as well as that she is being gossiped about. Daisy gets angry and completely refuses, calling them “stiff” and Mrs. Walker tells Winterbourne if he doesn’t get in with her and leave Daisy alone with Giovanelli, she will never speak to him again so he reluctantly agrees and proceeds to scold Mrs. Walker for chasing Daisy off. Winterbourne gets out of the carriage shortly after and while he can see Daisy and Giovanelli in the distance, he turns toward his aunt’s house instead of following.

Winterbourne tries a few times to see Daisy but neither she or her mother are at the hotel. A few days later at Mrs. Walker’s party Daisy’s mother comes all by herself looking frazzled and hoping Daisy and Giovanelli will be coming soon. Daisy finally comes, smiling and chatting, very late to the party. She goes to Mrs. Walker and is happy and asks if she knows anyone there and Mrs. Walker says everyone knows her by now and turns her back, refusing to speak to her at all. Givoanelli plays the piano and sings while Daisy and Winterbourne argue. He calls her a flirt, says it’s improper with a man like Giovanelli, and she continues to call him stiff while he warns her yet again that Giovanelli is a dangerous man and is not what he seems. On her way out, Mrs. Walker won’t acknowledge her at all and Daisy is horrified and Mrs. Walker says to Winterbourne, who witnessed the whole thing, that Daisy is never allowed in her house again, thus making it so that later, Winterbourne must go to Daisy’s hotel to find her, discovering that there’s usually no one there but when they are home Mr. Giovanelli is there as well and upon being seen by Winterbourne’s aunt, Mrs. Costello, who calls Giovanelli a “cavaliere avvocato” she notes that he is not respectable but that Daisy doesn’t know better and only sees his handsome face.

There is a clear break in the book in terms of how Daisy is perceived by others. By this point, Daisy is completely shunned by society and Winterbourne suspects that she doesn’t care much and is intent on her course of action. He encounters her one day and Giovanelli goes off for a few moments and he reiterates his disappointment in her and her ruined reputation, urging her one last time to repent. She finally tells him she is engaged to Giovanelli and then takes it back immediately, leaving Winterbourne confused.

A week later after a party, Winterbourne takes a walk through some ruins and spots Daisy and Giovanelli is the darkness talking and laughing in what Winterbourne calls a “nest of malaria” which brings up the stern warning about Daisy catching a fever. He scolds Giovanelli, a native Italian, about his knowledge of the danger of malaria and says he never should have brought Daisy there. He demands that the carriage be brought out so Daisy can go take medicine and on the way, Daisy asks Winterbourne if he believed she was engaged, to which he replies that he no longer cares.

The next few days brings news that Daisy is very ill, presumably from being out that night, and Winterbourne goes to see her. He finds Daisy’s mother remarkably composed and she tells him that Giovanelli has all but disappeared and that Daisy wanted Winterbourne to know she was never engaged. A week later Daisy dies of the fever and despite the people who shunned her, many were in attendance., including Giovanelli. In a moment of truth, when Winterbourne asks him why he took her to that awful place, he responds that she wanted to go and that if he married her, he would have had nothing anyway but that she probably wouldn’t marry him anyway, perhaps because she was simply an “American flirt” or because she was in love with Winterbourne—one can never know. The conclusion of Daisy Miller leads Winterbourne back to Geneva to live and continue to “study” even though he considers that he has “lived too long in foreign parts.”