Daisy Miller

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Female Independence 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.
Female Independence Theme Icon

The vast difference between the behaviors of Daisy and Winterbourne, two young, single Americans abroad, has one obvious explanation apart from their divergent personalities: as a man, Winterbourne is free to act as he wishes and to embrace an independent lifestyle without condemnation, while Daisy is not. The novella implicitly if not explicitly develops this unjust difference based only on gender norms. Daisy is part of a generation of young American women to whom more options than ever were open—women’s rights movements were beginning in earnest, and the Grand Tour to Europe, which had earlier been open only to men, could now be enjoyed by women as well. However, this did not mean that women were entirely independent. That Mrs. Costello, Mrs. Walker, and others grow so shocked at Daisy’s desire to walk alone—“alone” usually meaning with one man, unaccompanied by a chaperone—underlines these limitations.

In many ways, the novella shows just how frustrating these limitations and lack of independence can be for intelligent, curious young women. Still, James is seemingly very ambivalent about the position of young American women at this historical moment. The book hardly embraces Daisy’s behavior as a model for young women, as her death at the end of the novella brings her experiments in independence to a tragic close, and is also shown as stemming from her own mistakes and rash choices. As the place of the woman in American and European culture was rapidly shifting, Henry James portrayed some of society’s own ambivalent views on what paths the New Woman could take, and what dangers she still faced, especially in the older, more established European culture.

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Female Independence ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Daisy Miller related to the theme of Female Independence.
Part 1: Les Trois Couronnes Quotes

She paused again for an instant; she was looking at Winterbourne with all her prettiness in her lively eyes, and in her light, slightly monotonous smile. “I have always had,” she said, “a great deal of gentlemen’s society.”

Related Characters: Daisy Miller (speaker), Mr. Winterbourne
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

Not long after Winterbourne has satisfactorily fitted Daisy into a box by which he can understand her character, she blasts open that box and says something that makes her once again complex and intriguing to him. Daisy has been comparing New York and Europe. She is, she tells him, used to being in society quite often in America, so she is not incredibly impressed by Europe's offerings. As she describes her many lady and gentleman friends in New York to Winterbourne, she seems to become aware of how her chatter might be interpreted. 

Daisy's declaration about gentleman friends skirts the edges of decorum: the phrase could be interpreted quite innocently, and her light smile could either be another sign of frankness, or a recognition of the surprising, if not scandalous, admission of a young well-to-do lady spending too much time alone with men. Either way, Daisy does not hide these details of her past; instead, she parades them out for Winterbourne, making it clear that she has no shame or embarrassment about the way she has acted in the past, and that she will continue to direct her own actions in Europe as she has done in New York. 


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Part 2: Rome Quotes

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.

The young girl looked at him more gravely, but with eyes that were prettier than ever. “I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate anything to me, or to interfere with anything I do.”

Related Characters: Daisy Miller (speaker), Mr. Winterbourne
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

Winterbourne has accompanied Daisy to meet the Italian, Mr. Giovanelli, in a park, and he has told her that he won't leave her alone with the man. Daisy has been her usual cheerful, somewhat scattered self during her walk with Winterbourne, but now she becomes more serious, as it becomes apparent that she takes his vow seriously, and is troubled by its implications. Daisy's declaration is in the line of earlier statements to Winterbourne, such as her admission that she has plenty of gentlemen friends. Here she qualifies that claim by declaring that no one, not even one of these many gentleman friends—including Winterbourne, for that matter—can tell her what to do. Walking alone with an unknown Italian through a Roman park may not align with proper social customs, but Daisy is eager to pursue this experience, and she insists upon it with a resoluteness and independence that is again surprising to Winterbourne. The fact that Winterbourne focuses on how pretty Daisy is, something that often strikes him when she speaks to him, suggests that he continues to find her alluring and fails to be entirely shocked and appalled by her behavior.