Part of the difference between American and European culture, at least in the eyes of Henry James, is a greater naïveté and innocence on the side of the Americans—although this innocence is never considered wholly positive. Indeed, the word “innocence” is used in several different ways in the novel. In some ways it is related to a lack of knowledge about the way the world works, an ignorance of the unspoken rules and commandments that rule people’s behavior in polite society. In this sense, Daisy certainly seems to align with the idea of an innocent newcomer to European society. But innocence can also, particularly for women, be related to the concept of being “not guilty,” especially with respect to sexual purity. This is the question on which many in Roman society seem divided with respect to Daisy.
Indeed, in different ways, Daisy is both innocent and savvy. She has a coterie of acquaintances on her own in Rome, and has little trouble meeting “locals.” She seems entirely at ease in social interactions, with men as well as with women. This sense of savvy tends to be tied in the novella to her “American” character, and in particular to her family upbringing. Although her family members don’t necessarily encourage her to speak her mind and to pursue all the opportunities that present themselves to her, they also don’t prevent Daisy from doing so or reprimand her for her choices.
At the same time, Daisy’s fascination with European culture often reveals a certain guilelessness, a total openness to seeing and experiencing new things without an accompanying self-awareness about how to act amidst such novelties. Daisy accepts Mr. Giovanelli’s offers to tour Rome unaccompanied by a “chaperone,” she spends all evening with the same men at parties, and she doesn’t act meek and polite around potential suitors. Does she act this way because she just doesn’t know how things are done in Roman expatriate society? Or does she not care—and if not, how much is she courting scandal by seeing just how far she can go with eligible young men? By the end of the novel, both Winterbourne and Giovanelli seem convinced that Daisy is, in their estimation, “innocent”—Giovanelli pronounces this judgment at Daisy’s grave—and yet it is no clearer than it was at the story’s beginning what precisely innocence entails.
Innocence 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.
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.”
“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.”
Winterbourne meditated a moment. “They are very ignorant—very innocent only. Depend upon it they are not bad.”
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.”
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.
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.
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!”