At First, Second, and Third Sight: Observational Refinement in “Daisy Miller”

January 30, 2019 by Essay Writer

He said to himself that she was too light and childish, too uncultivated and unreasoning, too provincial, to have reflected upon the ostracism or even to have perceived it. Then at other moments he believed that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced. (43)The socialites in Daisy Miller’s world aspire to a perfection, a nobility, and a superlative of character. But character is a misleading word; interiority is important only insofar as it reflects the assumed depths that come with an appearance of refinement, for the relationships in “Daisy Miller: A Study” are formed by observation, not by conversation. Winterbourne’s penetrating gaze dissects and complicates Daisy’s appearance and, subsequently, personality, beyond what her own projection of an personality warrants. The narrator of Henry James’s story furthers this atmosphere, peppering visual and even abstract sentences with modifiers and other syntactical strokes to force a system of visual refinement on the reader. The reader, however, must engage his imagination to form a picture of Daisy, her most evident quality, while he is kept privy to her relatively blank consciousness, thus ensuring an emotional detachment from her which allows him to “see” her as she really is. The heroine captivates Winterbourne, on the other hand, for most of the story, because he can only surmise as to the mystery, or “riddle,” as the narrator calls it, of the “ambiguity of Daisy’s behavior” beneath her deceptive exterior (46). His recognition of his reliance on the gaze, and on Daisy’s vacuity otherwise, triggers his final disgust and enables him to select an answer from the opening passage of this essay‹or at least recognize the hollowness of the debate, that either alternative is a product of a negligible character whose “observant consciousness” only functions when it loops back on itself, as all of Daisy’s limited comments, too, imply: an attempt at demonstrating refinement that fails to advance linearly, but instead circles its solipsistic subject.From the start, Winterbourne is shown as a participatory voyeur. His greatest talent is in particularize female beauty into discrete parts, refining his vision of the whole into smaller, more appreciable pieces:They were wonderfully pretty eyes; and, indeed, Winterbourne had not seen for a long time anything prettier than his fair countrywoman’s various features‹her complexion, her nose, her ears, her teeth. He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analysing it; and as regards this young lady’s face he made several observations. (7)Besides the visual blazon he writes on Daisy as a traditional weapon of subjugation (and which permits him, momentarily, to “mentally accuse” her face “of a want of finish” [7]), Winterbourne tries something equally dominating‹to usurp Daisy’s own power of sight by judging her eyes only on aesthetic terms. In their meeting, Daisy is at first ostensibly pinned by Winterbourne’s evaluative gaze of superlatives and particularization, but her eyes tell another story: “She sat there with her extremely pretty hands, ornamented with very brilliant rings, folded in her lap, and with her pretty eyes now resting upon those of Winterbourne, now wandering over the garden, the people who passed by, and the beautiful view” (9). Daisy’s agency and spontaneity, the qualities that draw Winterbourne after her, are on display here, so prominently, in fact, that Winterbourne’s own formerly powerful eyes get lost in the shifting catalog of her line-of-sight.James makes it easy to trace the origins of Daisy’s mode of surveillance. The description of her mother contains several hints as to where Daisy picked up her evasive eyeballing:Her mother was a small, spare, light person, with a wandering eye, a very exiguous nose, and a large forehead, decorated with a certain amount of thin, much-frizzled hair. Like her daughter, Mrs. Miller was dressed with extreme elegance; she had enormous diamonds in her ears. So far as Winterbourne could observe, she gave him no greeting‹she certainly was not looking at him. (18)Winterbourne’s reduced powers of observation highlights another feature of Mrs. Miller’s which Daisy shares‹her appearance of mystery through opposition. The smallness of her body contrasts with her “wandering eye,” just as her “exiguous nose” plays against her “large forehead,” or even that her hair is both “thin” and “much-frizzled.” This state of ambiguity, much more attractive in Daisy, is what causes a retrospective Winterbourne to note confusedly that Daisy’s face “was not at all insipid, but it was not exactly expressive” (7) and, more generally, wonder about Daisy’s motivations. Mrs. Miller’s appearance contrasts sharply with that of Winterbourne’s aunt, whose natural refinement is pronounced by her consistency of extreme:Mrs. Costello was a widow who frequently intimated that, if she were not so dreadfully liable to sick-headaches, she would probably have left a deeper impress upon her time. She had a long pale face, a high nose, and a great deal of striking white hair, which she wore in large puffs and rouleaux over the top of her head. (13; italics mine, except for ‘rouleaux’)Daisy has the best of both worlds, superlative beauty with contradictory ambiguity, but her lack of the nobility Mrs. Costello has in spades is why, in the elder’s eyes, “‘[S]he’s pretty. But she is very common'” (13). Even the word “pretty,” used extensively for Daisy, connotes a lesser, more readily available form of beauty and hints at the straightforward consciousness Winterbourne will later uncover.But until then, Winterbourne is in Daisy’s extremely pretty hands, and at times his voice seems to blend into the narrative to invite the reader into observing the world as he does. The opening of the story launches the process of particularization and refinement in its casual description of the resort town:At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel. There are, indeed, many hotels; for the entertainment of tourists is the business of the place, which, as many travellers will remember, is seated upon the edge of a remarkably blue lake‹a lake that it behoves every tourist to visit. (3)The modifiers “particularly,” “indeed,” and “remarkably”‹even the reminder to tourists and the ensuing recommendation‹all add up to produce a world whose innate elegance must be tapped by the refining eye of the observer. The same conceit applies to the descriptions of Daisy already cited. But since prose descriptions do not grip him as much as the visual does an actual observer, the reader is aware of the superficiality of these judgments long before Winterbourne understands them. Halfway through the story, annoyed with Daisy’s ingratitude for his visit, Winterbourne recalls the chestnut that pretty American women are “at once the most exacting in the world and the least endowed with a sense of indebtedness” (28). “Exacting” in more way than one, since Daisy is demanding of others and of the precise sort of attention paid to her. Of course, she rarely repays this attention, a fact the reader is cognizant of before Winterbourne is, as with the narrative description of her indifference to his history lesson: “‘I never saw a man that knew so much!’ The history of Bonivard had evidently, as they say, gone into one ear and out of the other. But Daisy went on to say that she wished Winterbourne would travel with them and ‘go round’ with them” (23). Daisy reconfigures Winterbourne’s knowledge in the familiar world of the visual (“I never saw…”) while his words of wisdom pass as uneventfully as the cliché James consciously employs. Her insistence that Winterbourne “go round” with her is one of the many uses of the phrase, a visual description of the social revolution (a meaning quite contrary to that of 1789 France) of wheeling about on a self-centered axis and ignoring the refinement of linear, intellectual thought that Winterbourne demonstrates.Daisy’s speech patterns reveal her linear futility and a tendency towards recurrence. She speaks about her mother’s bed-time habits:’No, she doesn’t like to go to bed,’ said the young girl. ‘She doesn’t sleep‹not three hours. She says she doesn’t know how she lives. She’s dreadfully nervous. I guess she sleeps more than she thinks. She’s gone somewhere after Randolph; she wants to try to get him to go to bed. He doesn’t like to go to bed.’ (15)The minute variations of the rhythm of each clause (between four and five beats, with two exceptions) amplify her inability to deepen her thought beyond the original statement. She runs into an unintentionally humorous ambiguity (“I guess she sleeps more than she thinks she does” / “I guess she spends more time sleeping than thinking”), and the repetition of “she” stalls the subject pronominally where it could be used to expand description of her mother. Her inability to make headway is most obvious in her cumbersome use of “to” four times after the semicolon‹the activity is constantly being put into effect through the infinitive, rather than coming to fruition (and, though it ends as a prepositional phrase, continues the infinitive theme). Finally, she concludes with a statement nearly identical to the opener, framing her synopsis with empty declarations.Caught in the world of the visual, Winterbourne is unable to detect these limitations. He cannot pierce the superficiality of Daisy’s character, and when he does find something he dislikes, as when he spies on her and Giovanelli, he is still too enamored of Daisy to confront her, either physically or in his own judgment. James subtly toys with the difference between Winterbourne’s discernment of the visible and the internal with a few cleverly-placed semicolons:Winterbourne stood there; he had turned his eyes towards Daisy and her cavalier. They evidently saw no one; they were too deeply occupied with each other. When they reached the low garden-wall they stood for a moment looking off at the great flat-topped pine-clusters of the Villa Borghese; then Giovanelli seated himself familiarly upon the broad ledge of the wall. (36)Clearly, we are meant to read the subject “they” as Daisy and Giovanelli. But James withholds any proper names until Giovanelli seats himself on the wall, and this comes in a separate clause. It is possible for “they” to mean Winterbourne’s eyes. In this reading, his eyes “evidently” do not see Daisy (or Giovanelli), because they are “too deeply occupied with each other”‹in other words, his eyes are enraptured with their own convergence of the gaze to see through Daisy’s demeanor. “When they reached,” then, continues to describe their roving path over the landscape; that “they stood for a moment” clarifies that the pair is really human, but the damage is done: “She came a little nearer and he held the parasol over her; then, still holding it, he let it rest upon her shoulder, so that both of their heads were hidden from Winterbourne” (36). He is blinded, while the reader retains vision (and most likely, at this point, couldn’t care less what Daisy and Giovanelli are doing underneath the parasol).Winterbourne, stuck in a visual system of judgment (“‘I have noticed that they are very intimate,’ Winterbourne observed” [42]), only breaks free from it and “sees” the truth when his vision is impaired:He stood there looking at her‹looking at her companion, and not reflecting that though he saw them vaguely, he himself must have been more brightly visible. He felt angry with himself that he had bothered so much about the right way of regarding Miss Daisy Miller. (46)The vocabulary of observational terms which can double as evaluative verbs‹”reflecting,” “regarding”‹strikes the philosophical change in Winterbourne’s literal outlook, as does his using her full formal name as a way of sapping her of any suggestive mystery behind the ambiguous “she.” He later repents slightly after Daisy’s death, but seems not to take the lesson to heart. The real “study” of “Daisy Miller: A Study,” then, is Winterbourne, whose faltering attempts to “study” Daisy we follow until his brief redemption, and of whom the final line of the narrative‹reinforcing his return to the gaze, albeit now directed at an ostensibly more deserving, but still “very” refined foreigner‹should come as no surprise: “…he is “‘studying hard’‹an intimation that he is much interested in a very clever foreign lady” (50).

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