The Sick and the Well: Playing at Life in "Daisy Miller"

by Janet Tassel (June 2015)

Even after more than a century, Henry James’s 1878 story, “Daisy Miller,” retains its central problem: How to respond to Daisy, with pity or contempt? In the New York preface of 1907, where James refers to the story as his “bantling,” he calls Daisy “an object scant and superficially vulgar—from which, however, a sufficiently brooding tenderness might eventually extract a shy incongruous charm.” Later in the preface, a friend scoldingly asks him why he has “not only led our judgement of it astray, but made any judgement quite impossible?”

We too are vexed, and this seems to have been James’s intention. Apart from his disingenuous depiction of Daisy as his “poor little heroine,” of whom “flatness…was the very sum of her story,” we feel affection for her, “extracted” from us by James in his “brooding tenderness.” But at the same time, he has guided us, or so it seems, in the Jane Austen tradition: as a threatening representative of the disorderly and chaotic “real world” impinging on a carefully preserved world of game-playing.

“Daisy Miller,” we recall, deals with James’s familiar “international” theme: a “nice” but rather silly young American woman, at loose ends in Europe, in this case with her harebrained mother and her obnoxious kid brother. Through the lens of the expatriate bachelor Winterbourne, a suitor for Daisy’s attention, we follow Daisy and her family from Vesey, Switzerland to Rome, where she scandalizes society by gadding about in public with the good-looking but oily Signore Giovanelli. Flouting all good sense and propriety, she strolls with Giovanelli after dark in the mosquito-infested Colosseum, a “nest of malaria,” as Winterbourne says. In response to Winterbourne’s imprecations, she declares, “I never was sick, and I don’t mean to be! I don’t look like much, but I’m healthy!” Of course, Daisy is “carried off” by “the fever,” and is buried in the “little Protestant cemetery.”

In a letter to Edith Wharton, James once wrote:

Only sit tight yourself and go through the movements of life. That keeps up your connection with life—I mean of the immediate and apparent life, behind which, all the while, the deeper and darker and unapparent, in which things really happen to us, learns under that hygiene, to stay in its place.

Hygiene would seem to be the operative word. In “Daisy Miller, the “movements of life” are expressed by the American expatriates’ artificial game of manners, played according to an inflexible set of rules. But this game is actually a ritual of “hygiene” and thus of survival; breaking the rules is no matter for “drolling” to James. Within the context of “Daisy Miller,” the playing at life, seriously observing its ludic ceremonies, seems more meaningful to James than the spontaneous eruption of the “real” self. In short, appearances may count more than “real” feelings, if civilization (with all its adjunctive niceties so dear to James) is to be perpetuated, and is to defend itself against the destructive, often barbaric, inroads of unrestrained instinct. 

The symbolic expression of James’s concern for this problem may be his paradoxical use of illness. For in “Daisy Miller,” the sickly, such as Winterbourne’a aunt, Mrs. Costello, as long as they abide by the rules, survive. It is the vibrantly healthy flouter of ritual who perishes. Thus, by extension, the Roman Fever is a brilliantly ironic metaphor for the punishment awaiting those who are thoughtless, naïve, or irresponsible enough to expose the regulated order of custom and ceremony to the infection of spontaneous instinct, or disorder. Daisy is utterly “natural,” which unfortunately means “naturally indelicate”; in James’s 1878 version, she occupies “a vulgar place among the categories of disorder.”

The word punishment does not seem too harsh in light of Daisy’s death; moreover, the idea of the anarchic “real self” as a threat to society requiring drastic punishment is implanted early in the story by a reference to Calvinism. Winterbourne, preeminently a survivor, has flourished handsomely in Geneva, “the little metropolis of Calvinism.” He is not physically sick, to be sure, but he has atrophied into a state of graceful decadence. He has so successfully adapted his instinctual “real” nature to the furtiveness and camouflage vital to survival in a Calvinist society that “his instinct…had ceased to serve him.” What he has gained is immunity: skilled in the game-rules of the “meilleur monde,” he is, though wanting in “instinctive certitude,” invulnerable—through judicious “hygiene”—to the sickness of disorder. He is also justifiably wary of a reckless ingenue like Daisy who flirts rather crudely with sickness, physical and moral; one who is unwilling or unable to rise to that level of social awareness that confers protection against the intangible peril of Roman Fever. He very reasonably thinks “simply of the madness, on the ground of exposure and infection, of a frail young creature’s lounging away such hours in a nest of malaria.”

But Daisy’s behavior from the start has been “crazy,” as Mrs. Walker later observes, and all of society, its framework subject to weakening by such wanton infractions of its rules, is therefore legitimately enraged. (The “Philadelphia critic,” mentioned in James’s preface to the story, who called Daisy “an outrage on American girlhood,” might have been exposing his own outrage and deep fear of the Daisy Miller phenomenon.) “They’re very dreadful people,” sniffs Mrs. Costello to Winterbourne about the Millers, and we are forced to agree, however much we value the “real” against the artificial. “They’re very ignorant—very innocent only, and utterly uncivilized. Depend on it they’re not ‘bad,'” retorts Winterbourne weakly.

“They’re hopelessly vulgar,” said Mrs. Costello. “Whether or no being hopelessly vulgar is being ‘bad’ is a question for the metaphysicians. They’re bad enough to blush for, at any rate; and for this short life that’s quite enough.”

It does seem to be enough, enough to destroy not only the Millers’ reputation, such as it could ever be, but Daisy herself.

A look at Mrs. Costello, an established invalid, who may be considered representative of the established order, and then at Daisy, the lively challenger of this order—of order itselfwill illuminate the beguiling paradox of sickness in “Daisy Miller.” Mrs. Costello. “dreadfully liable to sick headaches,” has made hypochondria a way of life. She wields power from her sickbed; in her infirmity lies her strength. It may be observed parenthetically that sickness, in and out of fiction, validates the patient’s existence somehow, while providing security and shielding her from the many risks and decisions faced by the healthy. Daisy’s mother, the ridiculous Mrs. Miller (a Jane Austen character right to the “dead waste of her temples”), is kin to Mrs. Costello in this regard: she “suffers dreadfully from dyspepsia,” “from the liver,” and in general is “not very well.” Interestingly enough, however, when faced with ugly necessity, she miraculously sheds her symptoms.

Daisy, by contract, is the essence of vibrant good health. She is the “breath of fresh air” sick people so often fear, however much it may be urged upon them. From the first, she is presented as lively, pretty, and vigorous, just like her name; and like her name she is also wild, uncultivated, and shallowly rooted—”superficial.” The anti-malarial pills she refuses to take are like—are indeed symbolic of—all the precautions she has ignored from the first. Several times throughout the story, mention is made of her being just the sort to be “carried away” by a most unsuitable suitor, which turns out to be death itself.

Mrs. Walker, the elegant friend of Winterbourne’s in Rome, is the other voice of established order and conformity in the story. An American lady, “very accomplished,”  she is not a professional invalid like Mrs. Costello. However, she is depicted as generally indoors, “studying European society.” Like Winterbourne, there is about Mrs. Walker too the pale cast of wearied posturing, and she too has immured herself carefully in a secure play-world of appearances: her drawing-room represents the fenced-off arena where the expatriates’ game of survival is played. Proof against all dangerous “natural importunings,” she, like Winterbourne, has been schooled in Geneva to subdue the clamoring of her “real” self.

“A very accomplished woman,” Mrs. Walker is nevertheless kindly disposed toward Daisy until Daisy’s antics frighten the older woman into angrily confronting her in the Pincio Gardens and finally cold-shouldering her entirely. Mrs. Walker’s response is exactly Mrs. Costello’s, though more gradually arrived at, and just as it is finally to be Winterbourne’s. All perceive Daisy as not only a destroyer of herself, but even more deadly, a destroyer of stability.

The fact that Daisy is eventually proven innocent, a “nice girl” after all, is almost irrelevant. James has made her, when all is said, trite and infantile, “nothing every way if not light,” and thus unworthy of being considered “tragic.” But even so, she is dangerous; she is the upstart outsider, representative of the instinctual “deeper and darker and unapparent” world of unruly, messy disorder challenging the placid “hygienic” world of appearances, manner, and ceremony—the “form of things” that must at all costs be defended if the phrase “civilised society” is to mean anything.

Thus, the decrepit Mrs. Costello will continue to summer at Vevey, and Mrs. Walker will continue to monitor European society. But all that is left of the renegade challenger—the healthy, splendid young “work of nature”—is a “raw protuberance among the April daisies.”



Janet Tassel is a writer in Lexington, Massachusetts.


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