Daisy Miller

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Judgment, Knowledge, and Knowability 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.
Judgment, Knowledge, and Knowability Theme Icon

The heroine that lends her name to the title of Daisy Miller is an enigma both to Winterbourne and to the novella’s readers. Despite all the time he spends watching her—and despite the national categories that should help in terms of identifying and explaining Daisy’s actions—Winterbourne can never quite figure her out. Daisy’s very character is deeply ambiguous throughout the novel, and this ambiguity serves to make Daisy such a fascinating character, even as it also suggests Henry James’s own ambivalence regarding whether or not to parcel out judgment on Daisy’s character.

Winterbourne has difficulty determining both why Daisy acts the way she does and what he should think about it. Daisy’s constant meetings with Mr. Giovanelli suggest, for instance, that she is leading an unseemly affair with him; but she also seems to welcome Winterbourne’s intrusion on her dates with the Italian, making him unsure of what is truly at stake in their relationship. Meanwhile, Daisy herself seems ambivalent regarding the judgments of others—at times claiming not to care, but at others blushing or growing anxious about other people’s responses to her actions.

Other characters in the novel, including Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Costello, have a clearer idea of how to consider Daisy, as they condemn her for her free spirit and lack of social propriety. They believe they know what kind of person Daisy is, or at least refuse to believe that there might be more to her than her social improprieties. Winterbourne, however, never manages to embrace such certainty or such final judgment. The one thing he’s sure about is that Daisy is “really quite pretty,” a judgment repeated several times throughout the novella—yet even this physical judgment makes him unsure as to whether she is an innocent youth or a very American flirt. Winterbourne alternately rebels (if quietly) against society’s condemnation of Daisy, and agrees with this condemnation himself. His encounters with Daisy cause him to question the social customs and traditions that he had long taken for granted—though not quite enough for him to overthrow them entirely, like Daisy does.

Daisy’s character is never ultimately resolved in the novella. There is a part of her beyond her national character that remains inscrutable, to Winterbourne in particular but also in the novella more broadly. Through his portrayal of Daisy and other characters’ attempts to know and to judge her, James seems to gesture towards an uncertainty regarding the extent to which we can know another person at all.

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Judgment, Knowledge, and Knowability ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Daisy Miller related to the theme of Judgment, Knowledge, and Knowability.
Part 1: Les Trois Couronnes Quotes

He thought it very possible that Master Randolph’s sister was a coquette; he was sure she had a spirit of her own; but in her bright, superficial little visage there was no mockery, no irony.

Related Characters: Mr. Winterbourne (speaker), Daisy Miller, Randolph Miller
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Winterbourne has just met the young Randolph, followed by his sister Daisy, in the garden of the hotel in Vevay, Switzerland where they all are staying. To Winterbourne, Daisy seems distracted and casual, though entirely frank in her attitude towards him. Here, he attempts to classify her within the available frameworks he has for interpreting female behavior. A "coquette" or flirt would usually be a pejorative term for a lady, suggesting that she breaks with established decorum. Winterbourne links the idea of a coquette with that of an independent spirit, something equally frowned upon for young woman. "But," he adds, there is something quite appealing in her attitude as well. To him she seems innocent rather than jaded: the label of a coquette might imply that a woman is perfectly aware of the seductive power she has over a man, and yet Daisy doesn't align with this attitude at all. 


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“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. 

She seemed to him, in all this, an extraordinary mixture of innocence and crudity.

Related Characters: Mr. Winterbourne (speaker), Daisy Miller
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

Winterbourne has accompanied Daisy to the castle across the lake, and they are spending the day touring together. He has just told her that he must return to Geneva the next day, and she has nearly thrown a fit: she decides that there must be a woman in Geneva to whom he is returning, and she begins to insult this imagined (at least, according to Winterbourne) woman with great passion. 

Winterbourne is entirely taken aback by Daisy's insults. He is not used to women sharing their views so openly: jealousy and protectiveness obviously exist in his world, but they are covered by a veneer of socially acceptable behavior, behavior that Daisy seems not to know or care about at all. In some ways, this only makes her seem more innocent to Winterbourne, since she seems so perfectly ignorant of the way young ladies are supposed to act. At the same time, Winterbourne takes on the language of, for instance, his aunt, in designating this behavior as crude—a term that can often be applied to Americans, as lacking the subtlety and sophistication of their European counterparts. Winterbourne continues to observe Daisy, always having to modify or complicate his judgment of her based on new data or new observations. 

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.

That she should seem to wish to get rid of him would help him to think more lightly of her, and to be able to think more lightly of her would make her much less perplexing. But Daisy, on this occasion, continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.

Related Characters: Mr. Winterbourne (speaker), Daisy Miller
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

As Winterbourne walks with Mr. Giovanelli and Daisy, he continues to wonder about Daisy's true character, about what really lies behind her cheerful façade—if there is, that is, any secret behind her joy and desire for experience. Here, he realizes that if Daisy acted as if she would like him to leave, he would be able to better understand: this would mean that she and Mr. Giovanelli were pursuing an affair, and would seek privacy. It would be shocking, to be sure, but at least Winterbourne and others would be able to situate this behavior within understood categories. 

Instead, Winterbourne continues to characterize Daisy as "perplexing" and "inscrutable." She seems innocent enough, but then chooses odd acquaintances and seems to care little for what her actions might look like—and yet this very attitude might also suggest that she is not seeking to hide anything. Winterbourne cannot figure her out, but he has not tired of following her, observing her, and attempting to work out the relationship between her actions and character—a project that becomes no less alluring for being so tricky.

“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.

[Mrs. Walker] turned her back straight upon Miss Miller, and left her to depart with what grace she might. Winterbourne was standing near the door; he saw it all.

Related Characters: Daisy Miller, Mr. Winterbourne, Mrs. Walker
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Walker has been seething with anger towards Daisy ever since she followed Daisy and Mr. Giovanelli to the park and implored Daisy to get into her carriage, and Daisy refused. On this night, Daisy has arrived late with the Italian in tow and has been her usual cheery, chatty self, failing to be properly muted and ashamed for her behavior. Mrs. Walker's painfully obvious dismissal of Daisy is the best revenge she can think of, and the best way she can find to show Daisy exactly how much she condemns her behavior. For Daisy, in turn, this is the first time that she is explicitly confronted with what others think about her, and in a way that she cannot easily dismiss or laugh off. 

Winterbourne, meanwhile, watches silently from the door. He has been watching Daisy all throughout the book, attempting to puzzle her out even as he avoids condemning her like the other characters, such as Mrs. Walker. But neither does he defend her: instead he remains off to the side, only a transcriber of Daisy's experiences. He does not participate in her joy of travel, but neither does he live her shame and embarrassment with her, even as he feels some of her pain from afar. Winterbourne is in some ways the ideal narrator, remaining at a disinterested distance, even as he shows the disadvantages of remaining at such a distance.

He could not deny to himself that she was going very far indeed. He felt very sorry for her—not exactly that he believed that she had completely lost her head, but because it was painful to hear so much that was pretty and undefended and natural assigned to a vulgar place among the categories of disorder.

Related Characters: Mr. Winterbourne (speaker), Daisy Miller
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

As Winterbourne is touring in Rome with his aunt and other expatriates, he is privy to the gossip they share about Daisy, as well as their judgments and condemnations of her behavior. In some ways, Winterbourne shares their concerns; he comes from the same social background, which affects how he perceives Daisy's behavior, and he cannot help but think that her actions are going "very far indeed." At the same time, he cannot agree that these actions stem from any kind of sinfulness or maliciousness on the part of Daisy. He continues to think of her as innocent, as "natural." Indeed, as much as Winterbourne has tried to classify her in a boxed-in, understandable category, these attempts have so often failed: instead Daisy remains for him in a near-mystical space of mystery and uncertainty, in which her reasons remain inscrutable to everyone, even her closest observer. This is why Winterbourne makes such a crucial distinction between being "vulgar" and merely ignorant, even innocent, as for him the latter absolves Daisy of most of her social improprieties. 

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.

Winterbourne stopped, with a sort of horror, and it must be added, with a sort of relief. It was as if a sudden illumination had been flashed upon the ambiguity of Daisy’s behavior, and the riddle had become easy to read. She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect.

Related Characters: Mr. Winterbourne (speaker), Daisy Miller, Mr. Giovanelli
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Winterbourne has stopped late one evening by the Coliseum, and is pausing to look at the romantic, picturesque scene and to recite some lines of poetry to himself, when he makes out the figures of Daisy and Giovanelli in the Coliseum. For Winterbourne, this is the last straw, and a moment of revelation. For most of the visit to Rome, Winterbourne has agreed with his aunt that there is something improper about Daisy wandering around with an Italian, but he has continued to insist to himself that this behavior is innocent and ignorant rather than conniving—even as he has also struggled to put his finger on Daisy's true character. Now that character seems to come to light without the shadow of a doubt. Only a dishonorable young woman could be out late at night with another man: she must be having an affair with him, Winterbourne concludes, and more importantly, she is not worth his time or respect. The mystery, what here is called a "riddle," seems instantly resolved, and although it is a relief for Winterbourne to finally understand, to finally feel like he "knows" Daisy and can categorize her, it is also painful for him to have to admit that he was wrong about her, and for her to lose her mystery and intrigue for him.

“Anyway, she says she’s not engaged. I don’t know why she wanted you to know; but she said to me three times, ‘Mind you tell Mr. Winterbourne.’ And then she told me to ask if you remembered the time you went to that castle in Switzerland.”

Related Characters: Mrs. Miller (speaker), Daisy Miller, Mr. Winterbourne, Mr. Giovanelli
Related Symbols: Roman fever (malaria)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Daisy has fallen seriously ill with the Roman fever after spending an evening at the Coliseum, where Winterbourne had encountered her and Mr. Giovanelli. Upon seeing them there together late at night, Winterbourne was shocked and disappointed: he decided that it must be the case that Daisy and Mr. Giovanelli are simply lovers, and that all the alluring mystery he had assigned to Daisy was a lie.

Now, Mrs. Miller's comments to Winterbourne complicate this scheme once again. Daisy's true motivations and character continue to be obscure, especially since her words are refracted through her mother, who can be flighty. Still, it appears that Daisy is at least aware of how the scene must have looked to Winterbourne, and is eager to insist that he need not be disappointed in or angry with her—indeed, she may even have stronger feelings for him than he believed. What remains unclear, of course, is the full extent of these feelings, as well as the reason for reminding him of the visit to the castle in Switzerland, apart from the fact that it is a fond memory they both share of a more "innocent" time.

“She was the most beautiful young lady I ever saw, and the most amiable”; and then he added in a moment, “and she was the most innocent.”
Winterbourne looked at him, and presently repeated his words, “And the most innocent?”
“The most innocent!”

Related Characters: Mr. Winterbourne (speaker), Mr. Giovanelli (speaker), Daisy Miller
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

Winterbourne has encountered Giovanelli at Daisy's burial in a Protestant cemetery in Rome. No longer does Giovanelli look clever and dapper: now he is pale and sickly. Winterbourne lashes out at Giovanelli for having brought Daisy to the Coliseum, but Giovanelli (in a way that is not entirely satisfying) protests that Daisy would always find a way to do what she wanted to do.

However, Winterbourne's anger ebbs at these words of praise from Giovanelli. The repetition of the word "innocent" seems to cement that adjective as the most appropriate description of Daisy (while also casting into doubt yet again whether or not Daisy and Giovanelli really were lovers). Indeed, Giovanelli seems adamant that innocence is the best way to describe Daisy. Winterbourne, of course, has gone through countless cycles of believing, doubting, and provisionally accepting the idea that Daisy is innocent. Unlike Giovanelli, he phrases the word as part of a question; as for any aspect of Daisy's character, he knows now that any belief or judgment that he might have about Daisy can only be asked, not stated resolutely. He has believed throughout the novel that if he just observed Daisy carefully enough, if he reasoned through her actions logically enough, he would pierce the mystery of this alluring American girl. Not only has he failed to do so, but he has failed to fully live himself at the same time.