University of Central Florida Undergraduate Research Journal - Daisy Miller: A Study of Patriarchal Perception
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Daisy Miller: A Study of Patriarchal Perception

By: Teddy Duncan Jr. | Mentor: Dr. William Fogarty


Daisy Miller by Henry James was first published in a serialized two-part format in Cornhill Magazine in 1878 and then in its full novella form in 1879. James tells the story of two wealthy Americans—Daisy Miller and Frederick Winterbourne—who encounter each other in the resort town of Vevey in Switzerland during the 1870’s and who share a suggestively romantic interest in each other. The novella employs a third-person limited narrator with internal access to Winterbourne's mind, observing Daisy and the people around Daisy according to Winterbourne's perception. The narrator is introduced as an acquaintance of Winterbourne, making the narrator also a distant character in the story. However, Winterbourne's perception is incorporated fully into the narrator’s observations, which mainly consist of his apprehensions of Daisy. The novella thus does not provide objective presentations of the characters; instead, the narrative presents an entirely subjective depiction of them according to Winterbourne’s inner thoughts. While this narrative strategy portrays Daisy and the other characters according to his perception, the credibility of Winterbourne as a reporter and recorder of events is not explicitly analyzed by himself or the narrator. Winterbourne's perceptions are always explicit, and they transparently divulge pre-established patriarchal notions that inflect his perceptions of Daisy. The result of this filtered point of view is a story that reveals more about Winterbourne than the other characters.

Though it is well-known that Daisy Miller “is as much about Winterbourne as it is about Daisy Miller" (Lodge xvi), the critical focus on James’s narrative technique almost always centers on Daisy. Indeed, as Lynn Wardley observes, the novella’s title character was initially received as kind of representative example: “The name ‘Daisy Miller’ was appropriated by numerous social critics as a negative model of the American girl who flirts with ‘any man she can pick up’” (240). Louise Barnett has argued that the novel’s use of narratorial devices engenders the capacity for female autonomy in a male-centric, restrictive society where women are oppressed. She views Daisy Miller herself as “the most uncompromising and uninhibited of all of James’s many freedom-seeking heroines, a resister of patriarchal society” (287). Similarly, Hristina Aslimoska posits that James was constructing a female character according to the Cult of the New Woman, and that “Daisy’s death at the end of the novella creates an aura of heroism... instead of bending over to societal expectations, she deliberately violates and rejects them” (80).

Yet the novella isn’t as much about Daisy as it is about Winterbourne, for its narratorial perspective focuses on Winterbourne’s case study of Daisy rather than Daisy herself. Essentially, though the novella announces itself in its subtitle as a "study" of Daisy Miller, it is actually a study of the observer Winterbourne and his thoughts regarding the position of women. In its examination of patriarchal thought, Daisy Miller doesn’t so much analyze Daisy, the object of Winterbourne’s "study," as it does Winterbourne, the conductor of the study, and the problematic manner in which he is conducting his work. It is this narrative perspective through Winterbourne that executes the novella’s critique of patriarchy in the late nineteenth century. Winterbourne’s perspective illustrates the patriarchy’s structure of information distribution and how his belief system is instilled in him by his socio-geographical circumstances, effectively rendering him a vessel for the patriarchal notions of others. 

However, this article will attempt to delineate the manner that the story is functioning (especially as it relates to gender and man-woman relations), according to the content of the text itself, rather than attempting to speculate on James’ intention for the text. Although I will rely on James as the author of the text, and will readily admit that these characters are a construct of his imagination, I will examine them in isolation from what their creator intended on them to be and will focus on how they operate within the story. I avoid this intentional fallacy territory for two reasons: 1. Because what James may have intended for the story to be about does not determine what it is about; he may have meant for Daisy Miller to reveal something very different than it does. 2. Because, although I do briefly cite one of his letters, I do not know what James intended to do and even if I did, again, his intentions do not determine the meaning of the story.

Winterbourne’s study of Daisy is a form of oppression; it assembles a hierarchal construction with Daisy as the subjected and Winterbourne himself as the subjugator. James deploys this observatory study within this hierarchal structure in order to maintain focus on the internal process of the subjugator; the function of Winterbourne as observer is to disclose the subtleties and nuances of inner patriarchal thought. James develops Winterbourne’s thoughts as an internal exhibition of the male gaze, which, as Patricia Johnson states in her article on the male gaze in James’ other work, “is connected to power and surveillance: the person who gazes is empowered over the person who is the object of the gaze” (39).

Meanwhile, James constructs Daisy (the object of the gaze) to be indifferent toward analysis, and even partially apathetic to Winterbourne’s analysis of her. Winterbourne's relation to Daisy is one of observer to observed. According to this narrative technique, Daisy becomes an object of study that can be examined in relation to the intentions, impulses, and morals that she must abide by — whether she does or doesn’t causes the judgment that is cast on her. To demonstrate the inextricability of Winterbourne’s internal observations of Daisy with his overall conviction of what she is, he frequently refers to Daisy not by her name, but by her actions or her social position. He interchangeably uses the terms "Miss Miller" (James 9), "Common" (James 17), and "American flirt" (James 12), aligning her title with Winterbourne’s internal observations of her. Winterbourne remarks at one point, after appointing her the title of an “American flirt,” that he is “almost grateful for having found the formula that applied to Miss Daisy Miller” (James 12).

James created Winterbourne as a character influenced by James’ own experiences and circumstances, effectively showing how patriarchal beliefs are distributed and subsequently embedded in someone. Winterbourne attempts to establish a formula of who Daisy is, the manner in which this is attempted is determined by the people in immediate proximity to him (friends and family) and by location (Geneva and more widely, Europe). This “formula” is a part of the patriarchal perception that is constructed according to socio-geographical circumstances. The patriarchal notions of these people and places inculcates Winterbourne’s own patriarchal perception; these are the components of the patriarchal information distribution which constructs and defines his beliefs concerning women. Winterbourne uses this pre-established metric in hopes of discovering a definitive concept to confine Daisy. Winterbourne’s classification of Daisy transparently and directly reflects his beliefs regarding women’s status. James, by utilizing Winterbourne's “subjectivity,” analyzes patriarchal belief systems in their unadulterated form. Winterbourne’s classifications are instrumental to his pursuit of Daisy; he utilizes his observations to inform his “study” of her, which ultimately is to determine if he should pursue her romantically.

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