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MonkeyNotes Study Guide-Daisy Miller by Henry James-Chapter Summary
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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS

James is a very sophisticated author who carefully chooses characters and events for his stories. He obviously picks the name Daisy intentionally, and through it he points out one of the themes of the book. The transient and common nature of beauty is suggested by the main character's name. A daisy is a common flower, pretty and plain, but like all flowers, also fragile. As Daisy is "milled" or put through a finishing process during her trip to Europe, she is crushed; her physical beauty is transient and can not ensure her survival. The beauty of Rome has also decayed, and it is appropriate that Daisy's own decay and final demise takes place in this city.

The story starts in the high, cold altitudes of the Swiss Alps, a place of strength and permanence that nature rules and changes slowly; when the setting moves to the decaying seat of western civilization, Daisy's decay is hurried forward. As a tourist in ancient Rome, she represents America's innocence and the decay of social conventions, caused by the rough-and-tumble attitude of the new and wealthy American industrialists. But in Rome, even the audacious and spontaneous Daisy can not remain unaffected by the centuries of social order that surround her. The buildings, like the Colosseum, may be in decay, but the social code remains in tact. Unfortunately, the innocent Daisy is unable to negotiate her way through the complex web of propriety. As a result, the story ends with her demise (decay) both socially and physically.


James also develops the theme of man's inhumanity to man. He uses Christian symbolism in the story to drive home the point that Daisy was "sacrificed" at the hands of a cruel society. At the climax of the story, she sits in the Colosseum at the base of a cross, the Christian symbol for sacrifice and forgiveness. Ironically, the Colosseum is a "pagan" site of human brutality and sacrifice. It is appropriate that Daisy meets her end in this pagan place, for she is martyred to an unforgiving society.

More importantly, Daisy sits beneath the cross, in the position of the Virgin Mary; there she is symbolized as purity and protected by forgiveness. Giovanelli stands before her, a Roman soldier figure, and the agent of her demise. But it is night, centuries have passed, and the suggestion of darkness and moonlight casts a shadow over the scene. When Daisy is buried in a dark corner of a small Protestant cemetery, her New World posture is effectively crushed and her marginal status confirms her martyrdom.

It is always questionable, when reading James, whether he exalts or demeans America and Americans. It is obvious in Daisy Miller that he views some Americans, like Daisy herself, as innocents who have some good attributes and intentions; but there are also the less pleasant American characters, like Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Walker, who are poor imitations of their European ancestors and who destroy American innocence. Europe, the site of James' most famous tales, is always presented as complex, interesting, and threatening to the Americans. It is obvious that, in general, James prefers the Europeans.

The final theme deals with the upper class that James always portrays in his fiction. He criticizes this class, with its elite status and controlling interest, as cruel and outdated. His upper class characters never change and have very limited perspectives. James knows that the upper class cannot deal with the messiness of "real" life; therefore, its members simply shun living life to its fullest. In the end of the book, Daisy, who tries to have fun at any cost, is really a much more charming character than Mrs. Costello, or Mrs. Walker (the upper class characters that are ruled by social tradition).

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