When I want to be a free spirit, I read “Daisy Miller” by Henry James

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The American-born British writer Henry James has affirmed his title as a great author by writing the novella Daisy Miller — a thought-provoking tale about a young American girl whose philosophy and conduct seem scandalous to the European society. Engaging in this work, readers can contemplate about cultural, social or governmental situations and thus, grasp an understanding of humanity nature through the author’s critical lens.

The novel is set in 1870, when the United States of America emerged as a distinctive nation for its novel spirit.  Living in a capitalistic culture, Americans are notorious for their nonconformity. James’s characterization of Daisy Miller embodies America with all these “disgraceful” traits: oblivious to the old values, impulsive-compulsive, candid in her expressions, independent, yet manipulative and stubborn when dealing with others, especially men she flirts with. Thus, the innocent girl’s manners astound European people, who have long clung to their stringent standards of a good female. The American new values contrast with European old way of life, creating a cultural situation in which Daisy exists in a different tune from Mrs. Costello’s, Mrs. Walker’s and other women.

The culture clash creates an unfavorable social situation for Daisy and her family. Naive, the character makes herself an easy target for criticism and disdain from the society that cannot accept her. Mrs. Costello labels her family “dreadful” and “hopelessly vulgar”. Mrs. Walker perceives that the unsophisticated girl is “ruining herself” by walking with two men in public. Daisy becomes the victim of humans’ incessant sin: gossip. The society indulges in talking about a person whose guts it finds distasteful. Perhaps, it is human nature to be ironic: indulging in conversing about topics it calls “vulgar”. Mrs. Walker, who is so kind in trying to save Daisy’s reputation previously, ends up cruelly turning her back on the unsophisticated girl. The society’s general perception makes her blind towards her own paradoxical and inhumane action. It is natural for normal human beings to be moral, yet sometimes society’s viewpoints distort their views of humanity and thus, create pitiful situations such as the dilemma Daisy faces.

With all the similar traits, Daisy symbolizes the United States of America. By ending his character’s life as such a young age, Henry James has offered his social criticism and prediction for the doomed fate of the government. Portraying Daisy Miller as unsophisticated, the author seems to imply his attack at the straightforward, simple style of thinking that the government encouraged the Americans to adopt. Furthermore, James’ characterization of Randolph is a powerful metaphor. The young boy’s uncontrollable desire for sugar represents the greed American capitalist system urges many to live with, despite disregarding humanity. Randolph only has seven teeth left, and is aware of this, yet he cannot stop eating candies. Similarly, the nature of American government and its people is to spend more than what they have. James predicts that the next generation of America will be “toothless”, not being able to bite and thus, turns the United States into a weak nation.

With Daisy Miller, Henry James has effectively communicated with readers about his own perspective on American government, cultures, societies and most of all, human nature.

P/S: Daisy actually reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind ( I read this three years prior to Daisy Miller), since both are free-spirited.

 

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3 thoughts on “When I want to be a free spirit, I read “Daisy Miller” by Henry James

    1. Thank you for reading this essay! I am glad that you want to read “Daisy Miller”. It is not my most favorite book, but it does teach me many valuable things.

      I will definitely look into “The Age of Innocence” and tell you my opinion.

      Like

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