Reading Questions on Henry James's Daisy Miller
- Discuss these two contemporary views of Daisy Miller.
Harper's Magazine, December 1878: “Daisy Miller is an impossible daughter, who regards her mother as a cipher, and who, besides, is an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence, elegance and vulgarity. A young person of bad manners.”
HJ himself in an August 1880 letter: “Poor little Daisy Miller was, as I understand her, above all things innocent. It was not to make a scandal, or because she took pleasure in a scandal, that she went on with Giovanelli. She never took the measure really of the scandal she produced, and had no means of doing so: she was too ignorant, too irreflective, too little versed in the proportions of things. She was a flirt, a perfectly superficial and unmalicious one....I did not mean to suggest that she was playing off Giovanelli against Winterbourne--for she was too innocent for that.”
- In what ways does James use his “international theme” (see p. 466) in this novel? What contrasts or oppositions does he draw between European and American characters and ideals? What rules are implied here for the behavior of young girls and married women in each culture?
- To what extent is Daisy responsible for her own fate, and to what extent is she an innocent crushed beneath a corrupt civilization? Discuss Daisy’s character in detail. Did you find her a sympathetic character or an irritating one? What points of European civilization does she fail to understand?
- James uses language carefully in this novella as in all his works; certain words (“pretty”) and images (flowers, for example) are repeated with variations throughout. Choose a few of the most important examples that you have seen in this work and present them to the class.
- In what way might it be said that this is Winterbourne’s story rather than Daisy’s? What do we learn about him in the course of the story? Is he responsible for her death? Look closely at the ways in which he assesses her and interprets—or misinterprets—her language and behavior.
- James uses places and place names carefully in this work. Discuss the significance of the various places alluded to here, such as the gardens, the Castle of Chillon, the Palace of the Caesars, the Colosseum, St. Peter’s, and so on.
- Two of the most crucial words in this story are “innocent” and “intimate,” especially because the characters define them in various ways and apply them to Daisy’s relations with others. Find the places in which these words are used and discuss the ways in which these loaded terms help to create tension (and misunderstandings) in the story.
- Several of the secondary characters play an important role in “Daisy Miller,” among them Randolph, Mr. Giovanelli, and three American ladies: Mrs. Costello, Mrs. Miller, and Mrs. Walker. Explain the function of each character in the story.
- The theme of illness is significant here; explain its function in the story.
- In “Daisy Miller: A Study,” Does James follow the precepts of realism and of art as he describes them in “The Art of Fiction”?
- What does it mean to be an American in this story?