In the town of Vevey, Switzerland, a young gentleman named Winterborne has stopped to visit his aunt. But because she is "now shut up in her room smelling camphor," he has a large amount of free time. The town of Vevey is, in the summer time, so filled with Americans that one could almost consider it an American resort. Winterborne usually spends most of his time in Geneva, where it is rumored that he is studying, but in the summer he always pays this visit to his aunt.
While Winterborne is sitting in a cafe drinking a cup of coffee, a child about nine or ten comes up to him and asks for a lump of sugar. Winterborne grants the request but admonishes the boy that sugar is not good for the teeth. The boy responds that he has virtually no teeth anyway. The boy is an American and maintains that the trouble with his teeth results from the dreadful European hotels and climate. What he really misses is some good American candy. Everything that is American seems better to the boy than anything European.
While Winterborne is talking with the young boy, they notice a pretty girl approach. The boy announces that it is his sister and Winterborne observes that American girls are indeed pretty. The young lady approaches and begins to reprimand young Randolph for various things. As she talks with her brother, Winterborne observes that she is a very charming creature who seems to have a lot of confidence in life.
He offers a passing remark to her and then wonders if he has been too forward. In Geneva, "a young man wasn't at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady save under certain rarely occurring conditions." But Winterborne tries to make another remark: He asks her if they are planning to go to Italy. After a few more remarks, he is able to determine that the young lady is "really not in the least embarrassed." In fact, she seems perfectly relaxed and composed.
After a brief conversation, Winterborne observes her more closely. She possesses remarkable and expressive features, but there is a "want of finish." Her conversation is quite pleasant, and she tells Winterborne that she comes from New York State. He addresses the young boy by asking for his name. The boy blurts out that he is Randolph C. Miller and wants to tell his sister's name. She tells him to be quiet until the man asks for it. Winterborne assures her that he would like to know her name. Randolph explains that his sister uses the name of Daisy Miller, but that her real name is Annie P. Miller. Winterborne also learns that their father lives in Schenectady, New York, is very rich, and doesn't like Europe.
Miss Daisy Miller explains that they should get some tutor to travel with them who could teach young Randolph, but they haven't been able to find anyone. "She addressed her new acquaintance as if she had known him a long time." She tells Winterborne that the only thing she doesn't like about Europe is the lack of society, especially gentlemen society. Schenectady and New York City had plenty of society that she enjoyed, but here in Europe, she has been unable to discover any.
Winterborne hears all of this with a certain amount of shocked amazement. "He had never yet heard a young girl express herself in just this fashion." He wonders if she is a great flirt or simply the essence of innocence. He finally decides that she is a pretty American flirt.
Daisy soon points to a nearby castle and wonders if Winterborne has seen it. She wants to go, but her mother doesn't feel up to it. Winterborne offers his assistance. He will be glad to escort Miss Miller and her mother to the castle, but Daisy thinks that her mother wouldn't like to go. Suddenly Winterborne realizes that Daisy is willing to go with him alone. When Eugenio appears, she explains to Winterborne that he is their courier and then, addressing Eugenio, says that Mr. Winterborne has promised to take her to the castle. Winterborne feels that there has been a breach of discretion and he offers to introduce Daisy Miller to his aunt, who will vouch for his character. But Daisy doesn't seem concerned. She leaves telling him that they will soon arrange a trip to the castle.
In this story, James uses something he calls a "central intelligence" to narrate the story. This means simply that the story is about Daisy Miller, but we see Daisy through the eyes of Winterborne. Thus, Winterborne is the central intelligence (sometimes called the sentient center). In order to utilize this technique, James must set up the qualities of his narrator. Thus Winterborne is an American who has lived most of his life in Europe. He is, therefore, more European than he is American. Being American, he will be more understanding of Daisy Miller's behavior; but at the same time, being reared in Europe, he will also be fully aware of the unconventionality of her behavior. Throughout the story, then, we will observe Daisy Miller indirectly through Winterborne's eyes.
A principal concern in most of James' fiction is the contrast of the American society and values with those found in Europe. In fact, Daisy Miller is one of the first works ever to investigate this particular theme. Appropriately, the novel opens in a Swiss inn that is frequented by Americans.
An early contrast is suggested by the actions of young Randolph. He is more forward than the European youths would be, and he has no qualms about approaching a stranger. When Daisy Miller does the same, we are prepared to accept this as a part of the American character. Young Randolph is also quite frank: He tells Winterborne with all sincerity that American men are better than European men. The statement was not meant as a specific compliment to Winterborne, but serves as one anyway.
It is with the appearance of Daisy Miller herself that the contrast between the two cultures or two systems of values is expanded. Daisy approaches with the confidence of a person accustomed to a certain amount of independence. Thus, two of the American qualities are those of confidence and independence. Even young Randolph has more freedom than do his European counterparts. As Daisy Miller says: "There's one boy here, but he always goes around with a teacher. They won't let him play." In contrast, young Randolph seems to have more freedom than he needs.
Some critics have superficially criticized this story as being too absurd to read in this modern age when there is naturally more freedom than was found in the nineteenth century. But even though we don't understand much of the restrictions, James is very careful to set up certain norms of behavior from which the character deviates. For example, Winterborne ponders the actions that are allowed a man in Geneva and wonders how far he can go with the American girl. His perplexity, his confusion, and his failure to understand certain qualities in Daisy Miller intimate the normal code of behavior expected of young ladies. Thus, it is quite clear to any reader just how much Daisy is exceeding the bounds of propriety.
The reader should be aware of another of James' techniques. It is James' habit to let the reader gradually learn more and more about a character. We have a brief scene in which Daisy Miller is presented, and then we have a brief scene where Winterborne contemplates the meaning of the girl's behavior. Gradually then, we arrive at a conclusion about her as Winterborne investigates more and more aspects of her character. Essentially by the end of this first section, we have most of her characteristics outlined for us. The remaining three sections will simply develop these basic traits.
What then is Daisy Miller? She has a want of finish, but still radiates with a charm and innocence. Her pert little face gives no trace of irony or mockery. She responds to things with sincerity and is perfectly frank in talking about her desire for the company of gentlemen. She is not bashful even when she should be. She does not understand that she cannot do the same things in Europe that she did in Schenectady, New York. Even her language is not of the most refined type. Daisy possesses a mixture of qualities that tend to confuse poor Winterborne. He even feels that perhaps he has become morally muddled. But finally, in spite of all of Daisy Miller's innocence, he decides that she is a flirt — "a pretty American flirt." What Winterborne does not understand is that according to Daisy Miller's viewpoint, there is nothing wrong with being a flirt. In fact, in America, it is expected that a girl be something of a flirt. It all depends on how far the flirtation was carried.
At the end of the section, Eugenio seems to disapprove of the arrangements Daisy Miller has made with Winterborne, and the narrator is quick to let the courier know that he is also aware of the impropriety of the entire situation. But he is so charmed and perplexed by this unusual girl that he will allow to escape him any chance to find out more about her.