Daisy Miller, by Henry James

Daisy Miller (Penguin Popular Classics)Daisy Miller by Henry James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here” (69).

I thoroughly enjoyed Henry James’ novella. My previous exposure to James’ work was through The Bostonians, another text that I enjoyed, and I was not at all hesitant to pick up this quick read from my gf’s bookshelf.

I won’t summarize the length of the story, but will remark that it concerns a rich, American family traveling through Switzerland and Italy—sans Father, which should, psychoanalytically, speak for the uncouth behavior of the protagonist, Miss Daisy Miller. What I most enjoyed were the brief witticisms used by James to depict Miss Miller, and, thus, this uniquely American behavior of flirtation and childish, light of air quality of person. While Daisy often refers to the narrator, Mr. Winterbourne, as “stiff,” he is, up until the end, mystified by Daisy’ and while regarding her as “uncultured” he is absolutely fascinated by her ‘devil-may-care’ attitude. It is for Mr. Winterbourne her very, to borrow the phrase, The Unbearable Lightness of Being that makes her so attractive.

As an American who frequents month long visits to Germany, and is in a relationship with a European, I can understand this relation quite well. It still rings true today, albeit often in far more vulgar behavior, that Americans are, well, “childish” (in a positive light) and “uncultured” (in a negative light). And, from this American’s perspective, the adjective “stiff” used by Daisy Miller could not more resemble the truth when regarding the European standard of behavior (68). (No offense to all those good, up-standing Europeans eating  with their tines down; or those hearty Germans organizing party games in order to coerce socialization out of their fellow “stiff” citizens.)

This little novella also spoke to the romance of Rome. After having lived in Rome for some six months, albeit over ten years ago, the propensity for Italian men to both attract and relentlessly court American girls has survived these 100 years. In other words, the myth of Giovanelli and Miss Daisy Miller is still alive for the American girl studying abroad. I recall many a fond night sitting on the Spanish Steps watching helpless, young, blonde American girls attract flocks of Italian men & boys—but it is unfair to pronounce them helpless, no?

So, yes, as you might have guessed, I sympathize with Miss Miller’s behavior—even her obstinate hold upon her cultural norms. And I think the greatest revelation of her and many—although they may not want to admit it—American characters & personages is contained in the following exclamation: “‘That’s all I want — a little fuss!’ and the young girl began to laugh again” (38).
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