The American in Europe: Henry James' Daisy Miller

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  • 0:06 Henry James and the…
  • 1:31 An American In Europe
  • 3:49 Daisy Miller:…
  • 4:19 Daisy Miller Synopsis
  • 7:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katherine Godin

Katherine is a teacher of middle and high school English and has an M.A. in English Education and an M.Ed. in Educational Administration.

In this lesson, we will examine the literary theme of the American abroad in the work of expatriate writer Henry James. Specifically, we will examine James's depiction of character relationships, behavior and social context within his novella Daisy Miller.

Henry James and the Realism Movement

James is considered one of the key writers of literary realism
Henry James

One of the most distinct writers of the realism movement was Henry James. James, who spent his early years living in both the United States and Europe, created work that revealed the tension between what he experienced of this new American culture and the old European world (remember, and this is important in his work, the United States was considered the youthful and flashy relative of the traditional and alluring Europe). He did this through stories that were grounded in social and political commentary and driven by multidimensional characters. In the literary sense, as an essayist, critic and author, James was like other writers of the realism movement. He revealed through his writing what he felt were the social realities of life in the 19th century and how the new and the old mostly clashed. However, he focused on themes like the morality (or lack thereof) of the class system, feminism, perception and freedom. If you think about it, these were really kind of modern and risky ideas for the time period. Throw in some Victorian values and cross that with some assertive American behavior and bam - you've got an instant readership. Known most widely for novels, like The Portrait of a Lady, and shorter narratives, like The Turn of the Screw, James actually wrote over 20 novels and over 100 short fiction pieces in his lifetime, all of which showed originality in storytelling (he was fond of playing with point of view and internal monologue) as well as social relevance on a larger scale.

An American in Europe

As a result of his father's stature as a theologian and prominence in intellectual circles, Henry James and his family traveled quite a bit, which meant the children would grow up in both Europe and the United States throughout the mid-1800s. James knew at a young age that his education was important and was lucky enough to learn firsthand of European culture by living and touring Western Europe. He read voraciously, learned from private tutors and began to write at a young age, ultimately deciding to focus solely on his writing by the age of 21. While he did travel back to the States, he spent much of the rest of his life in Europe, eventually becoming a British citizen around the time of WWI.

Why is all of this important? Well, one of the themes that ties much of James's work together is the concept of the American (remember, the new, exciting and at times flashy American) in the middle of old Europe (and tradition and social rules and all of that 'status' stuff). While this certainly isn't inclusive of all of his work, James's legacy includes stories that reveal the uncomfortable and unavoidable confrontation that occurs between these worlds when an American character is placed in European society. While most stories include characters with a certain amount of wealth and education, the obvious tension and social separation still exists.

Young James and his family experienced life in both the U.S. and Europe
Young Henry James

Within the context of the story of the American abroad, James explores concepts of class and behavior among both societies, what each believes about themselves and each other, while digging deeper into what he sees as the incompatibility of American values and British tradition. In his novel The Portrait of a Lady, we learn about an American woman living in Europe and dealing with life in between these new and old worlds after she inherits a large amount of money. The American is a novel about the adventures of an American businessman on his first European trip where his less-than-refined behavior defines him as different (to say the least). The Ambassadors is a novel about an American man who travels to Europe in search of his fiancée's son and in the process finds himself fascinated by Europe. As you can see, James's pattern was one that allowed for an entertaining story along with an examination of clashing cultures (without really showing allegiance to either side). One of the best examples of this story framework and one of the most commercially successful of all of James's stories was his novella, 'Daisy Miller'.

Daisy Miller: Characters and Setting

'Daisy Miller' is a novella about a young girl named Daisy Miller. She is a beautiful and wealthy American traveling around Europe with her brother, Randolph, and her mother, Mrs. Miller. Winterbourne is a young American expatriate (an American who has chosen to leave the country and live abroad) who has spent much of his life in Switzerland (sounds a little bit like James himself, right?) Mrs. Costello is Winterborne's aunt. The story begins in Vevey, Switzerland at a hotel where Daisy (who is vacationing) and Winterbourne (who is visiting his aunt) meet.

Daisy Miller Synopsis

We start with Winterbourne meeting and being quite fascinated by the young Daisy Miller. Initially, Winterbourne does not know what to make of Daisy - to him, she behaves in a way that's direct, uncultivated and flirtatious, but still he senses an appealing innocence about her. And she's beautiful (in, of course, an unrefined kind of way). When she declares a desire to see a nearby castle, Winterbourne agrees to escort her there. This is a bit of a scandal for the time period - she would go with Winterbourne (a man she just met) to a strange castle without a chaperone (which all ladies would have used).

Although Daisy would like to be introduced to Winterbourne's aunt, Mrs. Costello, it won't happen for a couple of reasons. Mrs. Costello has heard about the Millers and believes that they are uncivilized. When Winterbourne mentions their little outing plan, Mrs. Costello is all the more aghast, believing that Daisy is a young girl without manners and with only undignified thoughts in mind. She warns her nephew to be careful.

Daisy and Winterbourne first meet in Vevey, Switzerland
Switzerland Map

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