An Analysis of Winterbourne in Daisy Miller: A Study by Henry James
American writers and poets of the 19th century created literature to criticize and detail the imperfections of society. Emily Dickinson, who retired from contact with the outside world by the age of twenty-three in favor of a life of isolation, can arguably be considered such a poet. Her untitled poem "Faith" can be interpreted as criticism of the masculine-dominated society of her time and supports themes in Henry James's work Daisy Miller: A Study, which also criticizes societal expectations and practices.
The first two lines of Dickinson's poem "Faith" read: "‘Faith' is a fine invention/When Men can see-," the capitalization stressing the words "faith," "when," and "men," suggesting that men can be trusted to believe what is right only when their vision is not blinded by things such as the prejudice and societal expectations. Winterbourne, the main character in Henry James's story Daisy Miller: A Study, is a representative of the common 19th century masculine-dominated society of the elite, and a product of all the accompanying prejudices.
It is therefore that Winterbourne cannot help but find some fault in Miss Daisy Miller, who he meets for the first time during a visit to Geneva and who "talked to Winterbourne as if she had known him a long time. He found it quite pleasant" (330). Before society forces him to find fault with Daisy, his instincts allow him to take pleasure in her company and to see her for who she truly is: simply "a person much disposed towards conversation" (329).
However, it is not long before Winterbourne feels a need to place her within the rigid expectations proper to her class and gender. He begins to find her disposition towards conversation and acknowledgment to having a great deal of gentlemen's society as suggesting a flaw of character: "Poor Winterbourne was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed. He had never yet heard a young girl express herself in just this fashion; never, at least, save in cases where to say such things seemed a kind of demonstrative evidence of laxity of deportment" (331). Winterbourne must classify Daisy in some way, he can no longer see her as a charismatic outgoing individual, and have faith in his initial interpretation of her as simply unusually charming and outgoing, but must group her into a preconceived category of society.
Still confused as to where she belongs, Winterbourne tries to view her as an alternative "type," as an American or "other": "Never, indeed, since he had grown old enough to appreciate things, had he encountered a young American girl of so pronounced a type as this" (331). Winterbourne believes he is out of touch with the American society of the time, having spent to long in Geneva, suggesting it may be her background which created her ignorance as to the correct social decorum of Geneva. His instincts allow him to still think kindly of Daisy as very pleasant, but his societal beliefs yet again disallow total acceptance of her behavior: "Certainly she was very charming, but how deucedly sociable!" (331), hinting that her charm is pleasant, and by using the word "but" for contrast, that her social tendencies are unforgivably improper.
Winterbourne becomes more and more blinded by his ingrained societal prejudices, at first attempting to excuse her behavior as something acceptable in American society, but after finding her to be too sociable by his standards, goes back to using her American upbringing as an explanation serving to make her actions only the less of two evils: "Was she simply a pretty girl from New York State-were they all like that, the pretty girls who had a good deal of gentlemen's society? Or was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person?" (331). By using the phrase "or was she also," Winterbourne seems to be saying that she is either an improper American or a bad-intentioned person as well, not one or the other, leaving it no longer open to doubt that she should be spared criticism as an unknowing foreigner.
Winterbourne sees Daisy as innocent on an individual basis: "Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. Miss Daisy Miller looked extremely innocent" (331) but he must distance himself from her and properly classify her in some different specific category, and he therefore lacks faith to believe how she really is, in reality before him. In his classification, he sees her as different from the typical dangerous woman, and instead views her as unsophisticated and as having no design among the men she encounters: "She was very unsophisticated; she was only a pretty American flirt. Winterbourne was almost grateful for having found a formula that applied to Miss Daisy Miller" (331).
Winterbourne has now been fully blinded by his innate instincts to belong and contribute to a society based on strict class distinction and social decorum. As time goes on and he views more of Daisy's social behavior, and seeing her out after dusk with an Italian man Winterbourne instantly condemns her, believing he has finally made an accurate conclusion as to her place in society: "It was as if a sudden illumination had been flashed upon the ambiguity of Daisy's behaviour and the riddle had become easy to read. She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect" (361).
It is not until her death the truth comes out, described in Dickinsons's last two lines in her poem "Faith": "But Microscopes are prudent/In an Emergency." Faith alone was not enough to convince Winterbourne that Daisy deserved no such title as a flirt and to be considered one who was not worthy of respect. Blinded by his ingrained prejudices and stereotypes, Winterbourne could not trust that Daisy had never proven herself to have any bad intentions. It takes the Italian man whose company she so enjoyed professing her innocence and her last words delivered to Winterbourne by her mother: "She told me to tell you that she never was engaged to that handsome Italian" (363) for Winterbourne to recognize his mistake. Like looking through a microscope, the clues of Daisy's innocence are finally brought to light, into focus, and are undeniably evident.
Faith failed Mr. Winterbourne, as he was unable to see past what society expected him to see, and it was only through hard facts and evidence-the testimony of the dying girl and the Italian man with whom she spent most of her time-that Mr. Winterbourne could finally accept Daisy as she was, truly a girl disposed to conversation and nothing else. He tells his aunt that Daisy "sent me a message before her death which I didn't understand at the time. But I have understood it since. She would have appreciated one's esteem" (364), meaning that Daisy would have liked to be thought of kindly and not labeled as someone or something she was not, and never gave evidence to being.