Not That Innocent

Girl in front of house fire.

The Henry James novella, Daisy Miller, got me thinking:  Is innocence an acceptable excuse for behavior at odds with societal norms?  In the story we see Daisy behaving in very controversial ways for women of the mid-1800’s.  She looks directly at men without blushing, speaks bluntly about her life, travels alone with Mr. Winterbourne after only knowing him for half an hour, and cavorts regularly (unchaperoned) with a handsome, but common, Italian man.  Daisy performs all of these scandalous behaviors with hardly a thought to how they may besmirch her reputation in a Europeanized group of American expatriates.  Although she is unaware of the repercussions, we are told that she is ostracized from the high society that she may have been a member of if she behaved more respectably.  So we may consider her as breaking the laws of the society; the punishment: expulsion.

Winterbourne seems to contend, although half-heartedly, that because Daisy’s behavior is all innocent that she should be excused from the laws.  When confronted by her improprieties, Winterbourne states, “The poor girl’s only fault is that she is very uncultivated” (41).  His feelings that she should be excused because of lack of training continues until he finally sees her at midnight in a private moment with the Italian man.  In this regard, Winterbourne seems to reflect the views of the author who writes, “Poor little Daisy Miller was, as I understand her, above all things innocent. It was not to make a scandal, or because she took pleasure in a scandal, that she went on with Giovanelli. She never took the measure really of the scandal she produced, and had no means of doing so: she was too ignorant, too irreflective, too little versed in the proportions of things.”

A certain level of forgiveness is necessary for people who have not been familiarized with the rules which they are expected to live by, but Daisy Miller took this innocence to extremes.  Even when directly confronted by Mrs. Williams and eventually Mr. Winterbourne she chooses to follow her own ways rather than conform to acceptable behavior.  Eventually we must reach a point where ignoring the rules does carry consequences.  And for Daisy Miller that consequence is death.

~Ruth Nelson

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Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 2:36 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think that’s an interesting perspective Ruth. Daisy Miller’s innocence occasionally seems to be interchangeable with ignorance throughout the novella. Ignorance is an unacceptable excuse for governmental law, so why should it be acceptable for societal laws? However, the question I keep thinking about is this: why is it so important to be “cultivated,” or to conform one’s behavior to fit the social rules that are in place? Perhaps, as a visitor in another country, one must oblige out of respect. But I think the social rules are quite stringent in this case, and ostracizing Daisy for simply being a flirtatious American, seems to be more severe than necessary. Maybe it is a little difficult for me to appreciate how things used to be, since I’ve only ever lived in the 21st century. Being yourself is much more encouraged here, and now.

  2. Daisy holds to her position of innocence even after warned against it, perhaps because she thinks that she’s in a safe, cultured world. It’s a more dangerous world than she thinks it is.


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