American Illness in Daisy Miller: A Study
Before the revelations of modern medicine, illness of any kind was a highly mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon that was accompanied by little hope for a solution to ease or eliminate the ailment. During this time when no one knew the origin of most diseases, let alone how to cure them or take preventative measures, sicknesses of varying severity carried a lot more significance than they do today due to their unexplainable nature, thereby making them a valuable literary tool in terms of allegorical and metaphorical contexts. Henry James was one of many authors of the 19th century who employed illness as a meaningful symbol juxtaposed to the overlying conflict in his writing, most notably in his acclaimed 1878 novella, Daisy Miller: A Study. This story tells of several American characters in a European setting, some expatriates and some vacationers, all with varying degrees of familiarity with and acceptance of European sociocultural norms. The conflict focuses on the clash between European and American social customs, instigated by the promiscuous behavior of the free-spirited and strong-willed Daisy Miller and her interactions with American expatriates such as Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker as she travels Europe with her mother and younger brother. Several of these Americans face difficulties with their health just as they face difficulties with European society. Those at odds with the restrictive and elitist setting find themselves in physical distress, and only those who have fully assimilated to the culture and its expectations escape illness. Therefore, in James’ Daisy Miller, similar to the way the body feels the adverse effects when it rejects a virus, the incursion of poor health reflects a resistance to the conservative European environment.
The first and most significant example of this reflection is the sudden tragic death of Daisy Miller due to Roman fever, otherwise known as malaria. Even the name of the disease is highly appropriate – malaria translates literally as “bad air”, as it was thought to come from poisonous nighttime climate. While Daisy suffers physically from the harmful vapors, she also suffers from the “bad air” of those who know of her and make her subject of noxious gossip and distaste (Foster). The fever that kills Daisy is very much like “the overheated state that makes her frantic to join the elite (“We’re dying to be exclusive,” she says early on) while at the same time causing the disapproval of the Europeanized Americans who reside permanently in Rome at every turn” (Foster). Daisy is so quintessentially American that with no will to adapt to the customs of European society, she increasingly becomes the object of scandal because of her coquettish ways and open affections for multiple gentlemen. In fact, she blatantly denounces the ways of European women when Mrs. Walker, a Europeanized American and friend of both Winterbourne and the Miller family, begs her in cold fury to leave the company of her Italian companion Mr. Giovanelli, with whom Daisy went to walk with alone in the evening. Mrs. Walker demands that Daisy get into the carriage with her and exclaims that Daisy is ruining her reputation through her reckless actions (James 446). Daisy later confides to Winterburne, “the young ladies of this country have a dreadfully pokey time of it, so far as I can learn; I don’t see why I should change my habits for them” (James 450), thus affirming her opposition to proper European ways. It is this sentiment that heightens considerably as Daisy becomes the talk of the town at the disproval of all those who appreciate European principles for young women and ultimately seals her fate; because Daisy never waivers in her rebellion against the cultural expectations and remains stolid in her own beliefs, she is the one who suffers the most due to illness and eventually succumbs to it.
Though she is the most prominent example, Daisy is not the only American character to contrast with the Old World setting and experience illness. Her mother, Mrs. Miller, is neurotic about her many ailments and revels in telling of them to whoever will listen. She is said to suffer from “dyspepsia”, and, as Daisy claims she never sleeps, she often complains of fatigue, which often causes her to stay inside their hotel for extended periods of time to avoid her unnerving and unfamiliar surroundings during their vacation. These symptoms mark Mrs. Miller’s inability to cope with and behave within European standards, and she even blames the European climate outright for her discomfort – “I suffer from the liver…I think it’s the climate, it’s less bracing than Schenectady” (James 440). Likewise, Mrs. Miller’s son and Daisy’s young brother Randolph also declares he has dyspepsia, and shares his mother’s opinion in blaming their location for the loss of his teeth, although a normal occurrence for a boy his age, by saying “It’s this old Europe. It’s the climate that makes them come out. In America they didn’t come out” (James 422). The members of Daisy’s family experience these minor afflictions because their very being is in opposition with what was to be expected of upper class people in Europe. Mrs. Miller is to blame for her children’s upbringing as it does not fit into the ideals of the Old World; she does not reprimand Daisy’s flirtatious and unacceptable actions and for Randolph’s impolite behaviors and remarks. She treats their courtier, Eugenio, as one of their family, and this was seen as unbecoming to the expatriate elite. In the words of Winterbourne’s aunt Mrs. Costello, “They are very common… They are the sort of Americans that one does one’s duty by not – not accepting” (James 428). Similar to how Mrs. Miller’s illnesses keep her tucked away in her hotel, away from the judging eyes of the populace, Mrs. Costello is “too proud to associate with Americans touring the continent and yet not having been accepted by European society or the society of Europeanized Americans, has developed sick headaches and withdrawn from society altogether” (Houghton). While she belonged to a prominent social circle back in the United States, she has not been socially successful in Europe, and her headaches represent her unconscious desire to hide from a society that has not met her expectations (Houghton). Mrs. Miller, Randolph, and Mrs. Costello are Americans out of place in an environment that does not entirely accept them, and so they are plagued with discomforts that allows them to shelter themselves from their surroundings.
In contrast, American expatriates Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker thrive in their European citizenship because they have absorbed the social norms and live by the standards expected at the time. Winterbourne functions well in his place of residence in Geneva, where he spends a great deal of time “studying” – that is, serving as the lover of a much older, likely married, foreign woman (James 422). This was a custom common in Europe during this time; while young unmarried women were expected to stay the perfect image of chastity and innocence, it was acceptable for married women unsatisfied with their spouses to take on a young bachelor as a lover. Daisy, with her thoroughly Americanized viewpoint, sees the hypocrisy in this situation; being rebuked by Winterbourne for her flirtatious habits, she declares “it seems to me much more proper in young unmarried women than in old married ones” (James 450). However, Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker have accepted this norm so as to see no fault in it and practice it themselves. It is significant that James uses the euphemism of “studying” to explain Winterbourne’s position, for indeed in a way he is studying the ways of the average upper class European. Likewise, “Mrs. Walker was one of those American ladies who, while residing abroad, make a point, in their own phrase, of studying European society. . .As a result of her study, Mrs. Walker has come to know the rules, she abides by them, and she cuts from her social circle anyone who endangers her own position by not following what she calls the ‘custom here’” (Houghton). Rather than have her reputation marred by her acquaintance with Daisy Miller, Mrs. Walker ignores the girl outright and refuses to invite her to any social events. Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker are able to maintain perfect health throughout the story because they have been fully integrated into European society and view it in a positive light.
In Henry James’ novella Daisy Miller: A Study, the illnesses experienced by several of his American characters are utilized symbolically to portray the rejection of the rigid European social precedents that contrast so sharply to their own. James’ story subtly hints at the moral sickness and hypocritical nature of the strict laws of society, to which the characters unaccustomed and unaccepting to this environment become exposed and subsequently diseased by its essence. The world that expatriates like Mrs. Walker and Winterbourne have become a part of is harmful to the others who fall prey to its attack and suffer mentally and physically from culture shock. The book is fittingly titled “a study” because it illustrates the downfall of Daisy Miller almost as a social experiment to which Winterbourne is the observer. As a pariah in an unforgiving society designed to seek out and eliminate those who do not fit in, Daisy was fated to be destroyed by the European culture she so vehemently rejected. Her innocence and ignorance made her sick to society’s ways and ultimately led to her tragic death.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines. New York: Quill, 2003. Print.
Houghton, Donald E. “Attitude and Illness in James’ ‘Daisy Miller’.” Literature and Psychology 19.1 (1969): 51-60. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Nancy G. Dziedzic. Vol. 64. Detroit: Gale, 1996. Literature Resource Center. Web. 2 Oct. 2016.
James, Henry. Daisy Miller: A Study. 1986. The Norton Anthology Of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2012. 421-59. Print.
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