Daisy Miller
Henry James
Contributed by Bobbie Heil
Character Analysis
Frederick Winterbourne

Winterbourne -- he’s only ever called "Frederick" by his aunt -- is the point-of-view character in Daisy Miller. (The story is told in third person, sometimes quite close to Winterbourne’s mind, sometimes pulling out to a more distant narrative voice.) Winterbourne is a young American who has spent most of his life in Europe. He is twenty-seven years old at the start of the story, and we learn that he attended both school and college in Geneva, Switzerland. He clearly comes from a wealthy family, since he does not work, and he now spends most of his time in Geneva "studying" -- though no one is sure what he actually does, or whether he has a mistress there. 

At the start of Daisy Miller, Winterbourne is in Vevey, Switzerland, visiting his aunt (the wealthy Mrs. Costello). While there, he meets the charming young American Daisy Miller, as well as her mother and young brother Randolph. That winter, Winterbourne renews his acquaintance with Daisy in Rome, when he goes down (once again) to visit his aunt. The meat of the story lies in the complex, subtle web of relationships among the characters, and centrally in Winterbourne’s struggle to define his own feelings about Daisy in the context of the disapproval felt for her by the other Americans abroad.

It can be difficult to know what to think of Winterbourne. Although it wasn’t until later in his career that Henry James became famous for his development of the "unreliable narrator," Daisy Miller is told in a narrative voice that is frequently coy, and only selectively tells us what’s gong on in Winterbourne’s mind -- or life. For instance, we have no idea whether he really does have a mistress in Geneva or not, nor what he is doing there between the time he left Daisy in June and the next time he sees her, in January. Moreover, although we are often given a window onto his conflicting thoughts about Daisy, we don’t see the depths of his psychological workings. Is Winterbourne actually very shallow, allowing himself to be influenced by his aunt’ s opinions? Is he unable to think for himself? Is his perfect behavior and "politeness" just a manifestation of the "stiffness" which Daisy perceives in him, an inability to think outside the box of social convention? Readers have to listen to Winterbourne closely, and then judge for themselves.

Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller, of course, is the title character of the story. A young American woman whom Winterbourne meets in Switzerland, Daisy (whose real, never-used name is Annie) is travelling with her mother, Mrs. Miller, and her younger brother Randolph in order to "see Europe for herself." (We don’t know how old Daisy is, but she’s presumably somewhere between sixteen and her very early twenties -- seventeen to nineteen seems about right.) Daisy’s father is a wealthy businessman in Schenectady, New York, and the family seems to be representative of newly wealthy Americans who have no knowledge of the ancient social customs of Europe. Daisy herself is strikingly pretty, with beautiful taste in clothes; her characteristic description -- from Winterbourne’s point of view -- is as a mystifying "combination of audacity and innocence." 

When Winterbourne meets Daisy in the resort town of Vevey, he is quickly fascinated by her -- and is equally puzzled. Daisy does the most improper things, and never seems to realize how improper they are: for instance, she agrees to go on an unchaperoned excursion with Winterbourne after having known him less than an hour, and asks him to take her rowing at eleven o’clock at night. Winterbourne finds this charming, but his aunt, the highly refined and "exclusive" Mrs. Costello, thinks it proves that the Millers are "vulgar." When Daisy and Winterbourne meet again in Rome the following winter, Daisy’s reckless habits become ever more shocking to upper-crust American society, to the point that she becomes universally shunned for her audaciously public friendship with a lower-class Italian man. Not until her recklessness takes its final toll, with Daisy contracting and dying of "the Roman fever," does Winterbourne begin to wonder if he judged her wrong at the end.

Winterbourne is never able to come to a conclusion about Daisy’s apparent innocence. It seems clear from Giovanelli’s final words to Winterbourne that Daisy was not "carrying on" with Giovanelli in an improper way, but Winterbourne can’t decide whether Daisy knew all along what people were saying about her. Sometimes she has seemed to him to be "too light and childish... too uncultivated and unreasoning" even to notice what others thought, but at other times it seemed to him "that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced." How much does Daisy see? What does she understand -- or choose not to understand? It’s hard for the reader, as it is hard for Winterbourne, to be sure.

Mr. Giovanelli

Daisy’s "intimate friend," Mr. Giovanelli is an Italian man whom she befriends in Rome, much to the shock and scandal of American high society there. Her very public friendship with him leads to her gradual isolation from the American community in Rome, until nobody -- except Winterbourne -- will so much as speak with her. When Daisy contracts Roman fever after spending a late evening at the Colosseum with Giovanelli, Winterbourne blames him for letting her get sick, but as Giovanelli tried to explain, Daisy herself wanted to go, and "when was the Signorina ever prudent?"

Giovanelli is viewed very differently by the different Americans who meet him. Daisy describes him as "the handsomest man in the world," "tremendously clever" and "perfectly lovely." Winterbourne sees him as "a little man [with] a handsome face, an artfully poised hat, a glass in one eye, and a nosegay in his button-hole," and decides that he must be only "a music-master, or a penny-a-liner [underpaid writer], or a third-rate artist" who is just doing "a clever imitation" of a gentleman. At any rate, even Winterbourne admits to himself that Giovanelli doesn’t seem to be a bad person: he’s intelligent, tactful, and humble, and doesn’t seem really to be after Daisy’s money. Nor does he ever try to interfere with Winterbourne, or any of the other Americans, to compete for Daisy’s attention. She herself chooses to spend time with him, and the reader can begin to understand why: Giovanelli seems a perfectly decent person, all in all. It is his misfortune that the high-society Americans in Rome look down on poor Italians as being completely improper companions for young American girls.

Mrs. Costello (Winterbourne’s aunt)

Mrs. Costello is a wealthy widow who lives in New York and travels often in Europe. She is described as having "a long pale face, a high nose, and a great deal of very striking white hair, which she wore in large puffs and rouleaux [rolls] over the top of her head." She has a forceful personality, is incapacitated by headaches every couple of days, and has two married sons in New York and one son travelling in Europe -- but her nephew Winterbourne, who often comes to see her, is far more attentive to her than her own son, so she is very fond of him. At the story’s start, Winterbourne has come to Vevey in order to visit her.

Mrs. Costello is extremely "exclusive" -- which is to say, there are lots of people she won’t associate with. She has a very clear sense of the rules of social hierarchy: she herself stands very high in this ranking -- she often tells Winterbourne stories of the way high society works in New York, and of her own power in those circles -- and the Miller family, to her, are very low. She calls them "very common... the sort of Americans one does one’s duty by... not accepting." This is why she refuses to be "introduced" to Daisy in Part 2. Throughout Daisy Miller, Mrs. Costello serves two main plot functions: first, she provides a reason for Winterbourne to travel -- first to Vevey, and later to Rome -- and, second, she provides ht mouthpiece for the American expatriates abroad who disapprove so strongly of Daisy Miller. From her, Winterbourne learns just what the "proper" members of society are saying about Daisy. Occasionally, Winterbourne himself feels that his aunt is "a rude, proud woman," but more often he seems to quietly admire her self-assured competence.

Mrs. Miller

Mrs. Miller, Daisy’s mother, is a timid and apparently vapid woman who accompanies her daughter on her travels. Suffering from chronic dyspepsia (indigestion), she talks frequently about her doctor back in Schenectady, and shies away from the idea of doing things like visiting castles and going to parties. She seems to accept her children’s behavior in a sort of resigned, stoical way: when we first meet her in Vevey, she has given up trying to make Randolph go to bed, and she is perfectly content that Daisy should go to Castle Chillon alone with Winterbourne. Nor does she ever seem to understand how shocking Daisy’s flirtatious behavior is to other people in Europe-- not even after the Americans in Rome begin to shun Daisy, and Winterbourne goes to see Mrs. Miller to try to warn her. Winterbourne decides that she is the most oblivious, vague-minded woman he has ever met. Only during Daisy’s final illness does Winterbourne see that Mr. Miller, a self-possessed and careful nurse for her sick daughter, may have more to her than he had ever given her credit for.

Randolph Miller

Randolph is Daisy’s nine-year-old younger brother. Although he has been brought with Daisy and Mrs. Miller on their European travels, he doesn’t particularly appreciate European culture or history and refuses to do anything he’s told. Unlike wealthy European children travelling abroad, he has no tutor, is not sent to school, and is permitted to do what he chooses; as a result, he ends up staying up till midnight in the parlors of hotels, terrorizing Eugenio the courier, and saying rude things when he is brought to visit high-society expatriates. Although Daisy, with her usual frankness, calls her younger brother "tiresome," his honesty can be refreshing among the rampant hypocrisy of the expats. One of his more irritating -- or endearing -- features is that he compares everything in Europe to America, with unfavorable results for the Continent: he attributes the loss of his baby teeth to the weather in Europe, and is grumpy about how dark it is at night there -- in America, he says patriotically and illogically, "there’s always a moon!"

Mrs. Walker

Mrs. Walker is an older and "very accomplished woman," an American living abroad in Rome. Winterbourne met her in Geneva, where her children go (or used to go) to school. Winterbourne goes to see her when he arrives in Rome, and in her hotel rooms he coincidentally runs into the Millers. That afternoon, Mrs. Walker tries to prevent Daisy from going for her walk with Mr. Giovanelli in the Pincio, and later goes so far as to follow her in a carriage to try to bring her back. When she fails, she is so humiliated and angry that she "cuts" Daisy, giving her the cold shoulder, when Daisy brings Mr. Giovanelli to Mrs. Walker’s party several nights later. This is the beginning of Daisy’s total estrangement from the American community in Rome.

Mrs. Walker is clearly a representative of the straitlaced, "proper" set of American abroad -- like Mrs. Costello, Winterbourne’s aunt. Her actions toward Daisy seem to show conflicting emotions: On the one hand, she probably does believe she’s acting in Daisy’s best interest when she tries to stop her from being seen with Mr. Giovanelli. On the other hand, her cruelty toward Daisy after Daisy rejects her attempts seems vindictive; it seems to smack of vindictiveness -- although Mrs. Walker herself would surely justify it as the necessary, "proper" thing to do.


Eugenio is the "courier" of the Miller family, which is to say he’s a sort of travelling servant and bodyguard who takes care of their travel details and watches over them on the road. An Italian with "superb whiskers," Eugenio is well-dressed and well-mannered, with a certain sense of what is "proper." But the Americans abroad scorn the Millers for treating him like a friend: to them, it’s very clear that servants should not be spoken to as equals. Winterbourne’s aunt insinuates that she believes Eugenio introduced Mr. Giovanelli to Daisy on purpose, hoping to get a cut of Daisy’s money if Giovanelli succeeded in marrying her, but Winterbourne thinks this is too cynical: there’s no evidence for it at all.

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