Critical Essays Meaning through Social Contrasts


Henry James was the first novelist to write on the theme of the American versus the European with any degree of success. Almost all of his major novels may be approached as a study of the social theme of the American in Europe, in which James contrasts the active life of the American with the mannered life of the European aristocracy or he contrasts the free open nature of the American with the more formalized and stiff rules found in Europe. Embodied in this contrast is the moral theme in which the innocence of the American is contrasted with the knowledge and experience (and evil) of the European. Daisy Miller is one of James' earliest works involving this theme. All the comments presented here are not found in this work, but for the sake of James' entire theory, it is useful to see how he took some of the basic aspects found in Daisy Miller and used them consistently throughout his fiction.

In its most general terms, that is, in terms that will apply to almost any Jamesian novel, the contrasts as seen as follows:


innocence vs. knowledge or experience

utility vs. form and ceremony

spontaneity vs. ritual

action vs. inaction

nature vs. art

natural vs. artificial

honesty vs. evil

The above list could be extended to include other virtues or qualities, but this list, or even half this list, will suffice to demonstrate James' theme or idea in the use of this American-European contrast.

The reader should also remember that James uses these ideas with a great deal of flexibility. It does not always hold that every European will have exactly these qualities or that every American will. Indeed, some of the more admirable characters are Europeans who possess many of these qualities and in turn lack others. Because a European might possess urbanity and knowledge and experience does not necessarily mean that he is artificial and evil. And quite the contrary, many Americans come with natural spontaneity and are not necessarily honest and admirable.

In Daisy Miller, James is more concerned with the difference in behavior than he is with the specific person. But generally, the character that represents the American is, of course, Daisy Miller herself. The representative of the European attitude in the worst sense of the word is Mrs. Costello, and to a lesser degree Mrs. Walker and Winterborne. Of course, all of these "Europeans" were actually born in America, but they have lived their entire lives in Europe and have adopted the European mode of viewing life.

One of the great differences that is emphasized is the difference between the American's spontaneity and the European's insistence upon form and ceremony. Daisy likes to react to any situation according to her own desires. Even though people tell her that certain things are improper, Daisy likes to do what she thinks is free and right. On the contrary, Mrs. Walker would never act in any manner except that approved by all society. The American than acts spontaneously, while the Europeans have formalized certain rituals so that they will never have to confront an unknown situation. Thus, there is a sense of sincerity in the American's actions, whereas the European is more characterized by a sense of extreme urbanity. Throughout the novel, we never see Daisy perform any action but that which is natural and open.

The American's sense of spontaneity, sincerity, and action leads him into natural actions. He seems to represent nature itself On the other hand, the European's emphasis on form, ceremony, ritual, and urbanity seems to suggest the artificial. It represents art as an entity opposing nature.

Ultimately, these qualities lead to the opposition of honesty versus evil. This question is not investigated in Daisy Miller, but in terms of James' final position, it might be wise to know his final stand. When all American qualities are replaced by all of the European, we find that form and ritual supplant honesty. The ideal person is one who can retain all of the American's innocence and honesty, and yet gain the European's experience and knowledge.

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