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.
Judgment, Knowledge, and Knowability ThemeTracker
Judgment, Knowledge, and Knowability Quotes in Daisy Miller
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.
“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.”
She seemed to him, in all this, an extraordinary mixture of innocence and crudity.
Winterbourne meditated a moment. “They are very ignorant—very innocent only. Depend upon it they are not bad.”
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.
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.
“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.”
[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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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!”