Daisy Miller

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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.
Observing vs. Living Theme Icon

Although the beginning of the novella suggests that a romance between Winterbourne and Daisy might supply the rest of the novel, that expectation is thwarted once Winterbourne arrives in Rome and Daisy has taken up with an Italian gentleman, Mr. Giovanelli. Yet even before this, Winterbourne’s relationship with Daisy is one of observation far more than interaction, and this mode of constant observation is tied to Winterbourne’s own inability to embrace his own circumstances and fully live.

Although the narrator seems to be an objective observer, most of the time the narration cleaves to the perspective of Winterbourne, so that what we see of Daisy is through his eyes. Indeed, a number of times in the novella the narrator notes that Winterbourne is watching or looking at Daisy as she interacts with others. Winterbourne’s gaze is that of a regular male admirer, but there is also a certain morbid fascination as he watches her make social mistakes without ever really intervening in more than a half-hearted way. Instead, Winterbourne seems to want to wait to see what Daisy will do next, as if she were a theatrical spectacle unfolding before his eyes. Nowhere is this truer than in the scene at the Coliseum, when Winterbourne catches sight of Daisy with Giovanelli late at night. Even though this is devastating for Daisy’s character (at least in the eyes of others), and even though she will contract the Roman fever here that will ultimately cause her death, Winterbourne feels more than anything a great relief to finally know how to categorize Daisy, exactly what kind of spectacle he is to watch.

Winterbourne’s constant observations of Daisy are purportedly meant to understand her, and even to permit him to win her over—as she seems, to him, to be giving mixed signals regarding her interest. But this search for greater knowledge of Daisy comes at a cost for Winterbourne himself, who seems to lose any kind of motivation on his own other than that of observing Daisy and watching her life unfold. Tied to the woman whose relationship to him remains ambiguous, Winterbourne moves through the novella in a kind of paused state. As the end of the novella strikes much the same note as the beginning—with Winterbourne back to the pursuit of an “older foreign lady”—we come to see the novella as, from his point of view, one long parenthesis that could well have little effect on his later actions and behavior. Unlike Daisy, Winterbourne fails to make choices, even the wrong ones, such that life ends up passing him by.

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Observing vs. Living ThemeTracker

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Observing vs. Living Quotes in Daisy Miller

Below you will find the important quotes in Daisy Miller related to the theme of Observing vs. Living.
Part 2: Rome Quotes

[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.


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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.

“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.