Henry James (1843-1916)
Contributing Editor: Alfred Habegger
Classroom Issues and Strategies
In "The Beast in the Jungle," James's late style will be a problem. In "Daisy Miller," students may well miss the important social nuances of the language used by the characters and the narrator. Most of us take for granted certain usages--"ever so many," "it seems as if," "I guess," "quaint"--that are indications of the Millers' lack of cultivation. Also, there are some genteelisms in their speech--Mrs. Miller's "the principal ones." Then there's the narrator's somewhat inflated diction-- "imbibed," "much disposed towards."
Distribute ahead of time a short list of usages, divided according to categories, and ask the students to add some usages from their own reading of "Daisy Miller."
Another problem that should be mentioned is point of view. Tell the students ahead of time that both "Daisy" and "Beast" use the same technical device of restricting the reader's perspective to what one character sees and knows. Ask them to decide what character this is. Give examples, find exceptions where the narrator speaks out.
"Daisy Miller": Some students inevitably despise Daisy for her occasional social crudity and inexperience. A good tactic to deal with this attitude is to emphasize such matters right at the start, trusting to other students to feel that they must speak up and defend Daisy's naturalness and boldness. I also recommend getting the obvious fact that the Millers represent vulgar new money out in the open from the start; otherwise, some rather slow reader will triumphantly announce this fact later on in order to simplify the heroine's character.
Students will appreciate some facts about Rome. The story takes place before the floor of the Colosseum was excavated and before the cause of malaria was discovered. The 1883 Baedeker guide reminded tourists of the traditional danger of malaria: "In summer when the fever-laden aria cattive [bad air] prevails, all the inhabitants who can afford it make a point of leaving the city." Some students will have no experience of Giovanelli's type--the public dandy and lounger.
Students consistently enjoy analyzing and judging (with great ferocity) the various characters. I am often surprised at the harsh judgments passed on Daisy's flirtatiousness and game playing.
"Beast": Few students respond well to "Beast," partly because of the aridity of the lives portrayed. The students may want to know why the story is so long, why it delays the revelation of Marcher's emptiness.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
In "Beast" I like to stress Marcher's eerie hollowness, the fact that he isn't quite alive and doesn't know it (until the end). In "Daisy Miller" students will probably need a detailed explanation of the Colosseum scene, where Winterbourne finally makes up his mind about Daisy, not only deciding that she isn't respectable but showing her by his behavior that he scorns her as beyond the pale. He learns the truth about her (and his own feelings for her) too late, of course--just like Marcher.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
"Daisy Miller" may be presented as a classic instance of nineteenth-century realism in presenting "a study" of a modern character-type. Simultaneously, since the story follows Winterbourne's point of view, James's subject becomes a double one and also concerns the male character's process of vision and understanding. In this sense, the story is about Winterbourne's "studying.
"In "Beast" the emphasis on the man's process of vision becomes even more salient. The lack of objective detail points to modernism.
For "Beast," students need to be told that the two characters are late nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century English, and that Weatherend is an upper-class country house frequented by weekend guests.
In "Daisy Miller" students will need help in grasping the leisure-class European social code: the importance of restraint, public decorum, the drawing of lines. When Daisy looks at Winterbourne and boasts of having had "a great deal of gentleman's society," she doesn't know (though Winterbourne and James do) that she is coming on precisely as a courtesan would.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Many valuable comparisons can be drawn between "Daisy Miller" and "The Beast in the Jungle." Both stories tell of an aborted romance in which the man distances himself emotionally until it is too late. This fundamental similarity can help bring out the real differences between the works, especially the fact that "Daisy Miller" supplies a good deal of pictorial background and social realism, while "Beast" focuses far more intensively on Marcher's state of mind and perceptions. "Beast" may also profitably be compared with Eliot's "Prufrock."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Ask students to pay attention to those situations in "Daisy Miller" where one character tries to gauge or classify another. They may notice that Winterbourne's social judgment is much shakier than at first appears. Not only does he misread Daisy (in the Colosseum) but he is wrong in pronouncing Giovanelli "not a gentleman." Giovanelli turns out to be a respectable lawyer.
2. I like to ask students to compare and contrast the scene in the Colosseum where Winterbourne decides Daisy is a reprobate and laughs in her face to the scene in Huckleberry Finn where Huck decides to go to hell out of friendship with Jim. One character gives way to a rigid social exclusion, the other defies it.
The preface that James wrote for "Daisy Miller" in the New York edition is illuminating but must be used with care. The preface was written about thirty years after the story, and James's attitudes had changed somewhat. Now he was much more uneasy about the vulgarity of speech and manners of American women, and he decided he had been too easy on the Daisy Miller type. Hence he labeled this story "pure poetry"--a way of calling it romance rather than realism.
Two helpful and somewhat contrasting studies: Wayne Booth's discussion of "Daisy Miller" in The Rhetoric of Fiction and Louise K. Barnett, "Jamesian Feminism: Women in 'Daisy Miller,' " Studies in Short Fiction 16, no. 4 (Fall 1979): 281-87.
It's difficult to know whether Daisy Miller is a historically accurate type. Upper-class single women did not apparently go out alone in the evening in New York of the 1870s, but they did not require a duenna when accompanied by a man.