Sunday, July 08, 2012

"Daisy Miller" (1878)

Daisy Miller—the main character in this long story, as promised (or implied) by its title—put me in mind of Herman Melville's Bartleby, the scrivener who resolutely and absurdly "preferred not to." She is a kind of willfulness personified, which evidently was taken as some intrinsically American trait in the 19th century. Henry James, who is careful with language, is at pains to show us how careless Daisy Miller is. The entire touring Miller family, from upstate New York, visiting Switzerland and Italy, uses "ain't" with abandon (that's mother, little brother of 9, and Daisy herself). Even more cringe-inducing (as intended), "He says he don't care much about castles," Daisy says at one point, entirely indifferent to her verb usage. Her name happens to be one she has taken for herself, reinventing herself American style, one presumes; it is actually Annie. With Winterbourne, the expatriate gentleman who takes an interest in her, I am puzzled by the odd extremes of her behavior. She rejects polite European (and expatriate) society to hang out, as we would say now, with an Italian gentleman of little means but evidently good heart, as events transpire. Well, as events transpire, Daisy Miller dies of a lung disease contracted as a result of her typical carelessness. It's all a bit sudden, but it's not such a long story and James has little interest in dilly-dallying, which might strike anyone familiar with James's later career as rather out of the norm. "Daisy's grave was in the little Protestant cemetery, in an angle of the wall of imperial Rome"—here, I think, one may find a sense of what James is about with this otherwise somewhat inert tale, worrying the feebleness and futility of her protest against an entrenched society or culture that is nonetheless itself doomed. Daisy Miller may be a casualty but she is striking significant blows on her way down. And it is not so much that society itself, the Europeans, who work so hard to consign her to her oblivion, but rather the heirs of the original protesters, now trying so determinedly to accommodate the narrow perceptions of the empire that their own forebears once rejected so emphatically. Winterbourne may be the only one who grasps this paradoxical shallowness, and even that's not a sure bet. Daisy Miller may be the wisest one here after all.

"interlocutor" count = 3/55 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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