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(Un)Cultivated: An Exploration of Daisy Miller by Henry James

Updated on June 8, 2013

The novella Daisy Miller is a study of high society in Europe in the 1870’s. In the novella, Henry James describes the rigid social norms that ruled the lives of high society types through his description of Daisy Miller. James sets Daisy up as a foil to the other characters. In the words of Winterbourne “She is completely uncultivated." The interesting word in this quote is uncultivated. What does James mean by this word?

The most obvious meaning of the word is socially unpolished. Daisy Miller is unpolished in many ways. In fact, Winterbourne claims that “It [is] impossible to regard her as a perfectly well-conducted young lady; she [is] wanting in a certain indispensable delicacy." Daisy chooses to gallivant around with foreign male strangers. She also goes out at all hours of the night and is far too familiar with the courier. Daisy also commits the worst possible offence in the eyes of the upper class; she is an American girl.

Winterbourne often wonders if Daisy is aware of how “uncultivated” she actually is. He wonders if she is “… too light and childish, too uncultivated and unreasoning, too provincial, to … [reflect] upon her ostracism or even to … [perceive] it." However, later in that same paragraph he goes on to suppose that maybe her complete disregard for social norms is that she is “a young person of a reckless class." Daisy’s lack of social propriety might be intentional. She is without the social graces of the upper classes and throws that in the face of everyone.. In fact, the word uncultivated plays nicely against the young woman’s name. A daisy is a wild flower that can grow anywhere without tending. To name the character after this flower and then continually describe her as being “uncultivated” just adds to her disregard for the rules and boundaries of society. In this way, she is set apart from the high class.

Another meaning that uncultivated holds is innocence and virginity. However, Daisy’s purity is constantly in question throughout the book. It is mentioned repeatedly that Daisy has experienced “...a great deal of gentleman’s society." She is known to do everything that is “not to be done." This includes “flirting with any man she [can] pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italian men; dancing all evening with the same partners; receiving visitors at eleven o’clock at night." She is the subject of much gossip around Rome and Vevey. Henry James seems to use the word to reinforce the doubt of Daisy’s virginity.

Henry James
Henry James | Source

When Winterbourne first brings up the subject of Miss Daisy Miller to his Aunt in Vevey he describes her as “completely uncultivated” to which his aunt replies “…you had better not meddle with little American girls who are uncultivated, as you call them…You will be sure to make some great mistake". With these two uses of the word uncultivated within the same conversation James has managed to suggest then contradict Daisy’s claim to innocence. Mrs. Costello manages to take Winterbourne’s simple description of the girl’s lack of culture and imply that Daisy is promiscuous.

Another use of this word occurs when Winterbourne discusses Daisy with in Mrs. Walker’s cariage. When he questions her as to why she is making such a huge fuss over Daisy’s well-being Mrs. Walker explains that “’a smile goes round the servants when a gentleman comes and asks for Miss Miller’." Winterbourne then replies, after a slight pause, that Daisy’s only problem “’is that she is very uncultivated’." James does an excellent job of setting up two opposing ideas to create doubt in this conversation. Mrs. Walker’s comment implies that Daisy receives a great many gentlemen callers to her hotel. Winterbourne’s pause before he comes to Miss Miller’s defense suggests that he is starting to have doubts about her actions with other men. He is starting to see Daisy as cultivated rather than uncultivated. This word meaning innocence has successfully managed to imply the opposite of our young heroine.

Sadly, at the end of the novella it is clear that Henry James meant the word uncultivated in the most literal of senses. Yes, Daisy was socially unrefined but she was also innocent. Winterbourne admits to his aunt that she was right about him (if not Daisy) in telling him that he was “bound to make a mistake." Again, James has managed to twist the meaning of the word back to what it originally implied. Daisy Miller is an innocent and uncultivated young woman. However, without the three different meanings that James makes of the word uncultivated the overall themes of the story would not be nearly as understandable. It exposes the rigidness of upper-class society, the doubt and gossip that Daisy faces in the story, as well as actually expressing her overall purity. It is amazing that this one word conveys all those things.


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