The book opens with the narrator’s musings on the resort town of Vevay, Switzerland. It’s situated on the side of a lake ringed with all kinds of inns and pensions (boardinghouses), with one in particular that grander than the rest, called Les Trois Couronnes (“The Three Crowns” in French). There are so many American tourists here in June that you might think you were in an American tourist town.
The narrator sets up a fully fleshed-out setting before we meet any of the major characters in the novella. As we’ll see, place plays a significant thematic role in Daisy Miller, and here the Swiss town of Vevay suggests a limited kind of cosmopolitanism. Here James also sets up the theme of Americans in Europe, and the clash of cultures between the Old World and the New World.
The narrator situates this story two or three years in the past. A young American man, about 27 years old, is sitting in the Trois Couronnes garden looking idly around him. He has come here from Geneva, where he had been living. He came to see his aunt, but the aunt now has a headache, as usual.
The narrator slowly focuses in on one element of the setting, now less a landscape than a brief portrait of a young man, an American expatriate who is now doubly removed from his origins. Our first view of this person is of a quiet observer.
The young man is usually said to be “studying” in Geneva, but rumors abound that a foreign lady, older than himself, is the true source of his attentions. No one has seen her, but there are many stories about her in the air. Apart from that, though, Winterbourne (here we learn his name) has gone to school and college in Geneva and has many friends there, and enjoys its “Calvinist” spirit.
Although we will experience the rest of the novella largely through the eyes of Winterbourne, our own knowledge of him will remain indirect. He essentially exists to observe and to judge, not to act—we don’t even really know what he does in Geneva. We do learn that the strict, proper Genevan culture is appealing to him: he seems to have exchanged it for his American home culture.
Winterbourne has coffee and lights a cigarette, before a small boy comes walking along the path, about 10 years old, pale and with sharp features. The boy asks Winterbourne to give him the sugar remaining from his coffee, and his voice is described as immature but not young. Winterbourne says he doesn’t think sugar is good for boys, but says he may have it. The boy exclaims that it’s “hard,” and the way he pronounces the word reveals him to be American.
Winterbourne seems to be waiting for an event or an experience to cross his path rather than seeking it out himself, and here he’s presented with such a force in the form of the boy. The immediate impression of this boy is of a somewhat spoiled, petulant child, amusing in his directness but only because of his young age.
The boy says he’s had a number of teeth fall out since he and his mother and sister have been in Europe. He blames the hotels, then the candy, and calls American candy the “best.” When he finds out that Winterbourne is American, the boy also calls American men the “best men.”
The boy Winterbourne meets has a particularly black-and-white understanding of the differences between Europe and America, one that the story itself will go on to complicate in various ways.
The boy cries that his sister is coming. She is dressed in a fancy white muslin dress and Winterbourne immediately notices her beauty, thinking how pretty “they are,” that is, American girls. The boy starts playing with a walking-stick he’s carrying, and the girl calls him by name, Randolph. Randolph cries that Winterbourne is “an American man,” and the girl calmly suggests that Randolph be quiet.
Winterbourne himself thinks almost in Randolph’s terms here, isolating one element of the differences between Europe and America: an ideal of female beauty. Winterbourne’s penchant for observation is especially emphasized when young women are involved.
Winterbourne rises, realizing that he might be able to talk to a young unmarried lady alone here, in Vevay, though this would be forbidden in Geneva except under special circumstances. But the girl largely ignores him, bending down and asking Randolph if he’s going to take his pole to Italy. Winterbourne asks the lady if she’s going to Italy, and she says yes, though nothing more.
Winterbourne has an acute sense of the particular rules and limitations of different cultural contexts. Here Vevay is a kind of in-between place for both characters—it’s full of American tourists, but also more “liberated” than what Winterbourne is used to.
Winterbourne attempts to make an observation about the view, though now he feels less awkward, since he sees that the young lady isn’t embarrassed at all: her seeming distraction is just her peculiar manner. Little by little, as he talks, she looks at him more directly with a frank though honest gaze. Winterbourne again marvels at how pretty her features are, pretty in a way he hasn’t seen for a long time.
Although Winterbourne is only slowly succeeding in capturing the young lady’s attention, he is already fascinated by how she doesn’t seem to align with the kind of female types that he has come to know in Geneva, who would be more shy, less frank, and certainly to his eyes less pretty. We perceive all this objectification through Winterbourne’s eyes, as the lady herself remains likewise mysterious to the reader.
Winterbourne loves to observe female beauty, and he notes that the young lady may well be a coquette (a flirt), but there is no mockery or irony in her face. She begins to warm to his conversation, telling him about her family’s coming trip to Rome. She says Winterbourne seems to her more like a German than an American, an observation that makes him laugh.
A “coquette” means a flirt, but also has more negative connotations in this era and situation. Still, already Winterbourne finds his established categories of understanding women based on national or cultural characteristics muddled—as does this lady, in fact.
The lady says she’s from New York State. Winterbourne asks her brother his name, and he says it’s Randolph C. Miller: his sister, he says, is Annie P. Miller, but she goes by Daisy, though that’s not the name on her “cards.” Daisy asks Randolph to ask Winterbourne his name, but Randolph simply continues, saying his father is Ezra B. Miller, and he is in a “better place” than Europe, that is, Schenectady, where he runs a business.
Only multiple pages into the novella are we (and Winterbourne) properly introduced to the family, and done so in a way that almost parodies how introductions are made in proper society (complete with guest cards to ensure that one’s name precedes one’s presence). As Ezra never appears, the book will lack any kind of patriarchal figure.
Daisy tells Winterbourne that Randolph misses home, and that there aren’t many boys around to play with him. Their mother thought about getting him a tutor, but Randolph wouldn’t stand to have one giving him lessons in the cars all the time: it’s true, she says, that they’re often in cars traveling around. She asks if there are good teachers in Italy, and Winterbourne says he thinks there are.
Daisy makes it clear to Winterbourne from the start that her family does not care much about forcing each other into acting in a certain way. Daisy is interested in and concerned about her brother, but she and her mother won’t force him into doing something he won’t like.
Daisy continues chatting (Winterbourne thinks others might have characterized it as “chattering”) about her family affairs as if she and Winterbourne are old friends. It’s been a long time since he’s heard a lady talk so much, but she does talk quietly, though her eyes are always moving. She gives a sketch of their travels thus far, remarking that while someone asked her if everyone lived in hotels in America, she’s found Europe to be nothing but hotels. But she doesn’t complain, saying that Europe hasn’t disappointed her at all. Friends, of course, have told her about Europe before, and she has plenty of dresses from Paris, so perhaps, she thinks, that’s why she finds it familiar.
Winterbourne is fascinated and enchanted by this talkative young woman: first of all, she isn’t like any of the women he knows in Geneva, but in addition, her chatter means that he is free to observe and to listen rather than to think up things to say himself. Throughout these lines, the narrator takes on Daisy’s tone and style of speaking often without directly quoting her, such that we are drawn into the scene and into Daisy’s own quick consciousness.
Daisy says the only thing she doesn’t like about Europe is the society. That is, she’s not sure if it doesn’t exist or if she hasn’t found it. In New York, she’s had seventeen dinners given for her, and has plenty of lady and gentleman friends. She glances at Winterbourne and says, smiling, that she’s always had many gentlemen friends.
Daisy may seem to care little about social rules that others follow, but in other ways she is quite sensitive about other elements of the social ladder, like parties and invitations. Her reference to having many gentleman friends could be seen as scandalous (especially in the environment Winterbourne’s used to), and adds to the growing question of just how “innocent” Daisy is.
Winterbourne is confused by Daisy but also charmed. He wonders whether she is really uncouth in her behavior or if he’s just lived in Geneva too long and can’t remember what Americans are like. Still, he can’t really believe that all pretty American girls with gentlemen friends are like this.
As will become a trend, Winterbourne reacts to Daisy’s talk and behavior with a sense of confusion, if not discomfort. Though an American himself, this American young lady seems entirely foreign to him.
Winterbourne wonders again if Daisy is unscrupulous—his instincts about people’s character seem to be failing him. She looks innocent, but some have told him that American girls are quite innocent, while others have said the opposite. He asks himself if Daisy is just a flirt, a category of women he doesn’t know well. He has known several older European married women who are dangerous, serious “coquettes,” but he decides Daisy is different and less sophisticated, just a “pretty American flirt.” He is relieved to have succeeded in categorizing her.
It is not entirely clear what Winterbourne means by “innocent” in this case—indeed, for the rest of the novella the term will take on various implications, from sexual purity to lack of social understanding. Here innocence, whatever it might mean exactly, is more useful for Winterbourne as a method of categorization, which would allow him to have a handle on Daisy—mastering her in a way.
Daisy points to the Château de Chillon (a castle) in the distance and asks if Winterbourne has ever been there. He says he has. Daisy replies that she would love to go before she leaves. They were going to go last week, but Daisy’s mother grew ill, she says; she regularly suffers from dyspepsia (indigestion). Randolph doesn’t care about castles and would rather stay at the hotel, she confides, but their courier (a kind of butler who’s also acting as their tour guide) won’t stay with him, so they haven’t been to many places.
Daisy’s openness lies not just in her willingness to take the lead in conversation but also in her lack of shyness or modesty about somewhat intimate family topics, from indigestion to small disagreements about travel plans. Daisy’s lack of embarrassment about sharing all these things is appealing to Winterbourne, even as it’s also confusing.
Winterbourne makes a few suggestions, but Daisy looks at him and cries that she wishes he would stay with Randolph. Winterbourne hesitates, then says he’s rather go to the castle with Daisy. Winterbourne knows that a girl in Geneva would have risen, blushing, at this suggestion—he’s been bold—but Daisy doesn’t seem offended. Instead she says that her mother probably won’t go, but she and Winterbourne could arrange something. Eugenio will stay with Randolph if her mother does too, she says—telling Winterbourne that Eugenio is the courier—so they can go to the castle.
Having listened to Daisy chatter on for a while, now Winterbourne dares to be more open and bolder himself. He’s willing to take the risk because the possible reward—being able to accompany this pretty American girl to a romantic Swiss castle—seems too attractive to pass up. Although Daisy is eager to go the castle, she also seems much less shrewd than Winterbourne about the planning of this process.
Eugenio appears, tall and handsome, and looks Winterbourne up and down before announcing that lunch is ready. Daisy rises and cries that she’s going to the castle anyway. Eugenio asks if Daisy has made “arrangements” in a tone that strikes Winterbourne as rude. Daisy blushes a little and turns towards Winterbourne, asking if he won’t back out, and he reassures her that he won’t. She asks if he’s staying in the hotel, and if he’s “really” an American. He says he’ll introduce her to someone who will confirm his identity, by which he means his aunt.
Eugenio remains largely a stock character in the book, a polished, buttoned-up figure who helps to underline the curious social situation of the Millers, who possess great amounts of money but are not always clued in to the “proper” way to treat people, like servants, of other social stations. This is the first time we see that Daisy is, in fact, attuned to nuanced aspects of social affairs.
Daisy smiles and turns to follow Eugenio, as Winterbourne watches her go. He returns to his aunt’s apartments, and asks his aunt, Mrs. Costello, if she’s noticed an American family with a little boy. Mrs. Costello is a wealthy widow with a long face and an impressive shock of white hair. Her three sons live in New York and Europe, but they don’t often come to see her. Winterbourne had “picked up” in Geneva the idea that he should be attentive to his elder relatives, and she’s pleased to see him. When he asks about the Millers, her tone immediately indicates that their social currency is low. They’re “common,” she says, the kind of Americans that one cannot accept.
Intrigued about the brother and sister he’s just met, Winterbourne is eager to learn more about the Millers from his aunt, who holds an impeccable social position and will undoubtedly be able to fill him in. Unfortunately, Mrs. Costello does not share with Winterbourne the kind of information he’d like to have. Mrs. Costello seems to have pretty quickly adopted a judgment and attitude towards this family, one that won’t change for the rest of the book.
Mrs. Costello agrees with Winterbourne that the young lady is pretty and charming, and dresses perfectly: she can’t imagine where her taste comes from. Mrs. Costello also criticizes the family for treating the courier so familiarly. Winterbourne shares that he talked with Daisy in the garden, and admits that he said, to show his respectability, that he would introduce her to his aunt. Winterbourne says she is certainly uncultivated, but pretty and nice. In fact, he is going to take her to the Château de Chillon, he says, smiling. Mrs. Costello cries that all this has taken place in less than 24 hours, and remarks that this girl is really dreadful.
For Mrs. Costello, the excellent taste of Daisy Miller does not qualify her “commonness” but is only a puzzle within her general certainty about the Millers’ social status. Winterbourne has recently wondered about Daisy’s “innocence,” and here he appears to have settled upon a provisional judgment, one in which Daisy is “uncultivated,” that is, lacking the kind of education that would permit her to know how to act socially. This is viewpoint is condescending, but not condemning—he thinks Daisy and her family are just ignorant, not wicked or “low.”
Winterbourne, more seriously, asks if Mrs. Costello thinks Daisy might expect a man to “carry her off.” She doesn’t know, but cautions him not to meddle with uncultivated American girls—he has been away from America from too long, and is too innocent. Winterbourne objects that he’s not so innocent, and she says he’s too guilty, then. She declines to make Daisy’s acquaintance. Winterbourne asks if all American girls don’t act this way, and Mrs. Costello declares that she should like to see her granddaughters act in such a way.
It is obvious that Winterbourne is interested in Daisy for himself, which gives a certain urgency or at least greater importance to his desire to know what kind of relationship Daisy might expect from men. Winterbourne’s conversation with his aunt further complicates the notion of innocence, as the word (in it’s meaning of “not guilty”) is now applied to Winterbourne himself.
Despite this conversation, Winterbourne remains impatient to see Daisy again. He finds her that evening in the hotel garden, wandering around alone. She was with her mother, she tells him, but she left to go pursue Randolph, who doesn’t like to go to bed. They remain there for a time, and Daisy says she’s been looking around for Winterbourne’s aunt. The chambermaid has told Daisy all about Mrs. Costello, Daisy says: she is apparently quite proper, quiet, and has a headache every two days. Daisy cries that she finds this a lovely description: she loves when ladies are exclusive, and would like to be so herself. She would be glad to know Mrs. Costello, she says.
Winterbourne may pay closer attention to the nuanced social judgments at work among the expatriate community than Daisy does, but he too doesn’t care quite enough about them to stop seeing Daisy, despite his aunt’s disapproval. Daisy reveals again that she is quite curious about the people around her on her voyage through Europe. Like the monuments and sights of the continent, the people mostly seem to please and delight her as unusual, new specimens.
Winterbourne, embarrassed, says that he agrees, although the headaches will make that difficult. Daisy glances at him and says they’re sure to find a time. But when Winterbourne slowly contradicts that, Daisy stops walking and pauses. She suddenly cries out, laughing, that Mrs. Costello simply doesn’t want to know her—Winterbourne should have just said so. He wonders if he can hear a tremor in her voice, and is mortified and touched. But Daisy continues walking, laughing, and as she approaches the dark lake and looks out on it, she remarks that Mrs. Costello is indeed exclusive. Winterbourne is about to decide to criticize his aunt, so that he might enjoy comforting Daisy, but Daisy seems to have already moved on, remarking that her mother is approaching.
Every so often, such as at this moment and in the scene of Eugenio’s snide remark, Daisy seems much more socially savvy than she otherwise appears (again complicating her “innocence”). Thus it is difficult to tell, for Winterbourne and consequently for us, what exactly Daisy feels about Mrs. Costello’s reaction: whether she’s feigning nonchalance, whether she finds Mrs. Costello’s “exclusivity” just another odd but interesting cultural quirk, or whether she’s genuinely hurt by this rejection.
They see a figure approaching in the darkness, and suddenly pause. Winterbourne says she must not see them, but Daisy says her mother probably won’t approach since she sees him. Winterbourne offers to leave her, but Daisy says her mother doesn’t like any of her gentleman friends. Still, she always introduces them—she’d find it unnatural otherwise. They walk up to Mrs. Miller, who is leaning on the garden parapet and looking out to the lake. Daisy calls to her mother, who turns. Winterbourne finds her delicate and graceful, small with thin, frizzed hair.
Mrs. Miller is another character to whom we are introduced slowly, indirectly, and through the eyes of other characters. Daisy does seem to have certain scruples and proprieties to which she adheres herself, such as introducing her mother to her gentlemen friends; it’s just that these customs have little to do with the kinds of customs that are prevalent in the family’s new context.
Mrs. Miller doesn’t greet Winterbourne, and when Daisy asks gaily what she’s doing here, Mrs. Miller responds that she doesn’t know. She couldn’t get Randolph to bed, she says. Winterbourne says he’s had the pleasure of meeting Randolph. Mrs. Miller admits that he was worse in Dover—he wouldn’t go to bed at all. Daisy says he’s been tiresome, though Mrs. Miller rebukes her for criticizing her own brother, who’s only nine.
Mrs. Miller seems nice but somewhat absent-minded, and lacking any kind of dominant maternal instinct—she cannot seem to control Randolph, but nor does she seem overly concerned about this fact. Neither she nor Daisy seem to be worried that Winterbourne (and the European society around them) will judge them for airing their family news.
Daisy says that at least she’ll be able to go to the castle now that Winterbourne has offered to take her. At first Mrs. Miller doesn’t respond, so Winterbourne thinks she doesn’t approve but can probably be easily be managed. He says that Daisy has kindly allowed him to be her guide, and Mrs. Miller stops her wandering eyes on Daisy and says she’s never been to the castle. Winterbourne says it’s a pity. He prepares himself to lose his private date. They’ve seen a number of castles in England, Mrs. Miller says, but he says Chillon is worth seeing as well. Mrs. Miller says Daisy is always up for anything. Winterbourne, pushing the point, asks if Mrs. Miller really won’t join them. Mrs. Miller looks at him sidelong, saying simply that she supposes Daisy will go alone. Winterbourne marvels at this kind of mothering.
Winterbourne is relatively quick to construct his own judgment about Mrs. Miller, largely in terms of how her character will impact his own hopes of success in wooing her daughter. There is much that remains unsaid and beneath the surface in this scene, as Mrs. Miller and Winterbourne exchange glances, direct and sidelong, and as Winterbourne attempts to pursue his own objectives. Does Mrs. Miller suspect anything out of the ordinary or overly forward in Winterbourne, or in her daughter? Is she uncertain about the area’s customs? Or is she simply unconcerned?
Daisy suddenly calls to Winterbourne, asking if he can take her out on a boat right now. Mrs. Miller exclaims at her, but Winterbourne asks Mrs. Miller to let Daisy go. Daisy complains that Winterbourne hasn’t spoken to her in an hour, but when he protests that he’s been talking to her mother, she just repeats her request for him to take her out into a boat. Winterbourne watches her smile and swing her fan around, and marvels again at how pretty she is.
Here, however, Daisy does seem to have crossed an unspoken line, what with the late hour and her rash, spontaneous desire. Daisy’s repeated requests here suggest a different kind of “innocence,” one more like the childish petulance of Randolph, although it is still charming to Winterbourne.
Winterbourne suggests Daisy take his arm and they’ll go find a boat at the nearby landing-place. She laughs lightly, remarking that she enjoys when gentlemen are formal. Mrs. Miller wonders what time it is, and Eugenio, who has just appeared out of the darkness, says it’s eleven o’clock. Daisy cries to him that Winterbourne is taking her out in a boat. Mrs. Miller asks Eugenio to forbid her, and Eugenio says Daisy had better not. Daisy exclaims that Eugenio doesn’t think anything is proper. Eugenio looks at Winterbourne, then bows and says she may do as she pleases. Daisy says that she had hoped a fuss would be made: now that she has permission, she doesn’t want to go as much.
Although Mrs. Miller was surprised at Daisy’s desire, she doesn’t seem willing to move to stop it. Instead, Eugenio, who belongs to the “Old World” rather than the American culture of the Millers, intervenes—even if apparently by chance—to bring Daisy’s and Winterbourne’s prospective nighttime journey to an end. Again, Eugenio’s tone, body language, and gestures all indicate a general disapproval of and judgmental attitude towards Daisy’s decisions.
Eugenio frigidly announces that Randolph has gone to bed. Mrs. Miller tells Daisy to accompany her back, and Daisy looks back at Winterbourne. She smiles and says she hopes he is disappointed or disgusted at her. Winterbourne says he’s just puzzled. He watches them go and lingers by the lake, continuing to wonder at Daisy’s capricious behavior.
What Daisy really seems to have wanted was attention—not necessarily to go in the boat. This again makes us question her “innocence” (guilelessness), and how much she affects such a persona to manipulate others. Winterbourne judges Daisy constantly, but still seems unable to resist her charms.
Two days later Winterbourne waits for Daisy in the hotel hall. She darts downstairs, buttoning her gloves as Winterbourne admires her figure and feels romantic. All the others in the hall turn to look at them as they leave, but Daisy immediately begins to chatter, expressing her preference to go to the castle by boat rather than carriage, as she so enjoys the breeze and the sights.
As Daisy descends the main staircase of the hotel, Winterbourne is given a prime vantage point from which to observe and admire her. Daisy seems unfazed by the gazes of both Winterbourne and the other hotel guests, instead continuing to be enraptured by the novelties around her—but again it’s unclear just how unaware she really is.
Daisy is charming and animated, but Winterbourne is a little disappointed that she doesn’t seem anxious or fluttered and doesn’t blush at all. Still, he enjoys listening to her original ideas and charming talkative nature. She pauses to ask why Winterbourne is so grave, and he protests that he thought he was smiling: he has never been so pleased. Daisy looks at him and then laughs delightedly, saying she likes to make him say such things.
Winterbourne seems to have envisaged a romantic excursion to the castle, but it seems that Daisy’s openness and frankness is not, after all—at least not obviously—seductive or sexual in nature. Daisy doesn’t shy away from Winterbourne’s advances, but neither does she seem concerned about encouraging them.
They arrive at the castle and walk around. Daisy seems less interested in antiquities than she is in asking Winterbourne about his family, his tastes, and his habits, and comparing them to her own. Although she seems not really to listen to his stories about the history of the place, she does express a wish that Winterbourne would travel with her and her family and educate them. He could be Randolph’s tutor, even. Winterbourne says he would love to do this, but he says he has other “occupations,” engagements that will force him back to Geneva the next day. Daisy cries that he is horrid, and she rebukes him continuously for the next ten minutes.
Although Daisy has expressed a great deal of interest in seeing the sights of Europe, she is just as if not more fascinated by the people that she encounters along the way. She has pulled Winterbourne easily into her life, enough that she finds it unbelievable that he has an entirely separate life and set of commitments in Geneva. These commitments remain shrouded in mystery, as Winterbourne always remains only a partially fleshed-out character.
Winterbourne is astonished by Daisy’s reaction. She begins to hurl insults on the woman she imagines Winterbourne is running back to Geneva to see. Winterbourne denies that this woman exists and can’t imagine how Daisy might have alighted on this idea. He is both startled and amused by her frankness, finding her simultaneously innocent and crude. Daisy cries that the lady really does keep Winterbourne on a short leash. Finally, she says she’ll stop teasing him if he agrees to come to Rome in the winter.
Of course, at least according to the rumors, Winterbourne does in fact have a woman waiting for him in Geneva: what surprises him is both how Daisy could have known, and that she would eschew all discreetness in chastising him for “running back” to his lover. If Daisy really does feel romantically attracted to Winterbourne, she has an unusual way of showing it—but this is also what’s so fascinating to Winterbourne.
In fact, Mrs. Costello has taken an apartment in Rome for the winter. But Daisy says she wants Winterbourne to come for her, not for his aunt. Winterbourne agrees to come, and they return to Vevay, with Daisy remaining quite quiet. That evening Winterbourne tells Mrs. Costello where he’s been. She asks if the pair went alone, and when she finds that they did, she sniffs and exclaims indignantly that this was the lady Winterbourne wanted her to know.
Again, if Daisy is romantically interested in Winterbourne, her demands are very forward for the time and place. If she is not, however, then Winterbourne cannot tell why she is so upset about his absence. Part I ends with Winterbourne just as mystified about Daisy’s true character as at the beginning, and with Mrs. Costello just as certain about the right way to judge Daisy.