Daisy Miller

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European and American Character Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
European and American Character Theme Icon
Observing vs. Living Theme Icon
Judgment, Knowledge, and Knowability Theme Icon
Innocence Theme Icon
Female Independence Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Daisy Miller, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
European and American Character Theme Icon

Many of the novels of Henry James—an American expatriate himself—are fascinated with the Old World and the New World, not necessarily as places themselves but rather in terms of how these places affect the development of character. The European and American continents come to represent an American youth, innocence, and spontaneity versus a European subtlety, age, and complexity—a difference that can be revealed in, or conversely challenged by, individual characters themselves. Both Winterbourne and Daisy Miller are Americans by birth, and both find themselves taking the opposite journey of the European explorers who undertook the voyage to the Americas centuries before. But rather than discovering a “new,” unspoiled paradise, Winterbourne and Daisy encounter a society with strict rules for social behavior, propriety, and attitudes.

Randolph, Daisy’s little brother, is the only character permitted (because of his youth) to sing the praises of his native land and to constantly compare the countries to each other—though he tends to be portrayed as a wild, spoiled, and peculiarly American child as well. Older visitors are instead supposed to implicitly understand the European rules of behavior. Daisy seems to epitomize an American mentality, as she is always eager to grasp new opportunities and experience new things without regard for what others might think. Winterbourne remarks several times that she is the chattiest girl he’s met in years; Europeans, in his view, tend to be more reserved.

Still, many other characters are quick to distance themselves from Daisy, fearing that she will make the Europeans around them look down on the vulgar American tourists flocking to their cities. Winterbourne is American as well, though he is largely assimilated to life and culture in Geneva, but he does take a liking to Daisy: he is the character who feels most strung between the two cultures and ways of life, even as he aligns his own lifestyle with the European worldview. Daisy’s death ultimately serves as a warning about the danger of a total frankness and naiveté in the American mode, but European judgmental attitudes and unwillingness to see the charm in American “innocence” do not escape the author’s critique either.

European and American Character ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of European and American Character appears in each part of Daisy Miller. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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European and American Character Quotes in Daisy Miller

Below you will find the important quotes in Daisy Miller related to the theme of European and American Character.
Part 1: Les Trois Couronnes Quotes

“But I really think that you had better not meddle with little American girls that are uncultivated, as you call them. You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent.”

Related Characters: Mrs. Costello (speaker), Daisy Miller, Mr. Winterbourne
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Costello, Winterbourne's aunt, has learned of his conversation with Daisy, and it is obvious that she does not approve. Mrs. Costello has noticed Daisy and her family around the hotel, and has been quick to point out their very American improprieties, such as being overly close and familiar with their servant, as well as their general "vulgarity."

Winterbourne has been attempting to discern whether or not Daisy is innocent, a judgment which assumes that he is knowledgeable enough to decide. Here Mrs. Costello reveals another, even opposite approach, suggesting that in fact Winterbourne is the innocent one, and Daisy the dangerous American interloper that he'll have be wary of. Mrs. Costello thus reflects the paradoxes of the way American character is perceived throughout the book. On the one hand, Americans—especially "little American girls"—are considered to lack the social sense and cultivation of Europeans; but in another way they are thought to be threatening and even conniving, the very opposite of innocent, and indeed liable to damage the innocence of well-meaning European men like Winterbourne. 


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Part 2: Rome Quotes

Winterbourne meditated a moment. “They are very ignorant—very innocent only. Depend upon it they are not bad.”

Related Characters: Mr. Winterbourne (speaker), Daisy Miller, Mrs. Miller, Randolph Miller, Mrs. Costello
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Winterbourne has just arrived in Rome, and Mrs. Costello is updating him about the earlier arrival of the Millers and their shocking behavior—particularly that of Daisy, who has taken to showing up at parties with an Italian man with a moustache. Here, Winterbourne seems to carefully consider his aunt's judgment, though not to embrace it wholeheartedly. Although he seems to only be thinking about the evidence that his aunt has laid out for him, it is clear that his own experience with Daisy influences what he tells his aunt as well. 

Winterbourne does not entirely challenge his aunt's condemnation, but only seeks to explain it. "Ignorance" for him is not exactly a positive trait, but it is justifiable in terms of "innocence," rather than stemming from any kind of maliciousness. Winterbourne thus seeks to defend the Miller family's moral standing even as he refrains from justifying their behavior—for him it is simply that this behavior is socially rather than morally wrong. He seems to place a great deal of importance on his ability to describe and classify the Millers fairly, as well as on his ability to be an impartial judge in the matter. In that, Winterbourne fails to fully understand, or perhaps admit to himself, how much his own fascination for Daisy plays into this process of judgment.

He remembered that a cynical compatriot had once told him that American women—the pretty ones, and this gave largeness to the axiom—were at once the most exacting in the world and the least endowed with a sense of indebtedness.

Related Characters: Mr. Winterbourne (speaker), Daisy Miller
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Winterbourne has met Daisy at a party, where she exclaims to the hostess how "mean" Winterbourne has been to her. He is surprised and a little annoyed: Daisy doesn't seem to recognize or to be grateful for the fact that he has traveled directly from Rome rather than making several stops along the way, as he usually does. Winterbourne's deeply ambivalent response to Daisy's character is clear throughout this section, and particularly in this passage, as he recalls a friend's judgment on the character of pretty American women.

Nationality, of course, is one frame by which Winterbourne seeks to understand and explain Daisy's behavior. By recalling his friend's words, Winterbourne is at least somewhat reassured, as he is able to classify Daisy as a typical American, "exacting" and yet failing to be properly thankful and demure to the men in her life. Of course, there are several layers of analysis at work, as both Winterbourne and presumably his "compatriot" are Americans as well, though in Winterbourne's case an American who has lived abroad for a long time and is perhaps less familiar with the national "character." Daisy's independence, both alluring and threatening to Winterbourne as to the other characters in the book, is better explained by this framework. Once again Winterbourne thinks he has understood her, even if this knowledge turns out to be only provisional.

“Well,” said Winterbourne, “when you deal with natives you must go by the custom of the place. Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here.”

Related Characters: Mr. Winterbourne (speaker), Daisy Miller
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Winterbourne is speaking to Daisy at Mrs. Walker's party about her behavior at the park the other day, and is trying to explain to her how and why she should conform to what is expected of her. Daisy doesn't see why she should follow the rules of others such as Mrs. Walker. In response, Winterbourne does not exactly defend the social practices of this little group per se; instead, he falls back on what he calls "custom."

Custom seems to have little basis in morality for Winterbourne: he does not, for instance, claim that it is ethically better to act in a certain way rather than another. Instead he believes that it is important to conform, to blend in wherever one might be. This is a pragmatic outlook, of course, and one that underlines how Winterbourne himself has gone about his time abroad and has, in general, succeeded in fitting in. Interestingly, though, this practice seems to counteract the notion of national character threaded throughout the book. If one can simply act like a European while in Europe, how can we deduce anything about a character from his or her origin? Winterbourne doesn't face these questions himself: Daisy is much more concerned with the implications for authenticity and experience that they raise, rather than the issue of nationality itself.

He was angry at finding himself reduced to chopping logic about this young lady; he was vexed at his want of instinctive certitude as to how far her eccentricities were generic, national, and how far they were personal.

Related Characters: Mr. Winterbourne (speaker), Daisy Miller
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

Winterbourne has failed several times to run into Daisy or to meet her at her home. He continues to muse over her character, and prior to this passage he wonders if she is too thoughtless to think of him at all, or if she is angrily defiant about his and other people's judgment about her. His inability to decide between these two options makes him generally angry at his failure to understand Daisy.

Winterbourne is a very logical person, and he is usually confident in his ability to reason out a problem—indeed, this is how he has approached the "problem" of Daisy for most of the novel. Only now does he truly grow "vexed" at how little his investigations have been fruitful or satisfying. He still can't understand or know Daisy. Even worse, he has trouble determining even what kind of unusual behavior she espouses: does it have something to do with her American origins? with her own, individual character? with some combination of the two? Winterbourne has been confident that waiting and watching Daisy can be just as revelatory as plunging into experiences with her, but now he is beginning to doubt whether or not that is the case.