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Notes for
The Opening Paragraph of 
Henry James's Daisy Miller

Ex AK SC Decombining - WB Style DC

     Henry James has a reputation for lengthy, rather complicated sentences. It would be interesting to do a more comprehensive study of samples of his writing, but this opening paragraph from Daisy Miller may be an accurate reflection of his general style. Daisy Miller is the work that established his reputation, and it clearly presents one of his dominant themes -- the exploration of character, especially Americans who move or travel in Europe.
     The social values embodied in this work will seem strange to most students. Daisy is ostracized because she goes out alone with men. Today, most students will consider that to be absolutely silly. Students may, however, find the novella interesting if it is approached from the perspective of how we, even today, evaluate (judge) others. Most of the story focusses on Winterbourne's attempts to "take in," as James likes to put it, Daisy's character. Are Americans, as Twain put it, innocents abroad, or are they simply crude, materialistic, self-centered, and uncultured? James never answers this question -- he knew that sweeping generalizations are invalid. It was the question, not the answer, that fascinated him. Even more, perhaps, he was fascinated by the complexity of the question. Thus, although Daisy appears to be the focus of the story, and the story tends to suggest that she is shallow and uncultured, her name is clearly symbolic, and thus pushes us in the other direction. On the other hand, Winterbourne, who appears to be the upholder of culture, has a name suggestive of death.
     No answers from James, just questions. And it is, perhaps, just this attitude that results in the complexity of James's style. With complicated questions, any little detail may provide a clue. And thus the text is filled with very specific details. Complex questions also require a willingness to see things in different perspectives, and thus James piles up details from different perspectives. The story opens with "a particularly comfortable hotel." But this sentence is immediately followed by "There are, indeed, many hotels . . . ." Shortly thereafter, we get the range of these hotels -- "from the 'grand hotel' . . . to the little Swiss pension . . . ."
     Within this "from ... to" construction, James presents numerous details on the object of each preposition, controlling them in what we might call "more subordinate" prepositional phrases. The syntax adds to the ordering. Thus the details on the "grand hotel" are ordered in parallel objects of a preposition -- "with a chalk-white front, a hundred balconies, and a dozen flags ...." Each detail is suggestive. A chalk-white front may imply cleanliness, but it also may suggest blandness or sterility. A hundred balconies clearly implies "big." The dozen, unidentified flags suggests international appeal, but a mixing of everything often results in nothing. Compared to the description of the "grand hotel," that of the Swiss pension is less "ordered," lacks the parallel construction, and is much more individualistic -- "with its name inscribed in German-looking lettering upon a pink or yellow wall and an awkward summerhouse in the angle of the garden." James makes no judgment, no preference for the grand or for the small, but the details and the sentence structure lay out the range of accommodations that an American might find in Europe.
     The paragraph then returns to the "one" hotel, but it almost immediately shifts back again to a broader perspective, characterizing Vevey as having "some of the characteristics of an American watering place." The two sentences that follow are parallel in structure, beginning with "There are" and then "There is." The first sentence makes a general statement that compares Vevey to American watering places -- "There are sights and sounds which evoke a vision, an echo, of Newport and Saratoga." The next sentence functions almost as an appositive to the first, as it fills in the first with specific details, all ordered as parallel predicate nouns -- "There is a flitting hither and thither of "stylish" young girls,  a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance music in the morning  hours, a sound of high-pitched voices at all times." The next sentence finally gives the name of the hotel, and again makes a tie to the American watering places.
     The final sentence in the opening paragraph then uses four highly elaborated, parallel appositives (to "features") to suggest the special quality of the "Trois Couronnes": 

there are other features that are much at variance with these suggestions: neat German waiters, who look like secretaries of legation; Russian princesses sitting in the garden; little Polish boys walking about held by the hand, with their governors; a view of the sunny crest of the Dent du Midi and the picturesque towers of the Castle of Chillon.
The parallel appositives take us back to the international -- Vevey is not an American watering place. The distinction, made with such detail, between the "American" and the much more international flavor of the European, is highly significant because Daisy, a young American girl, dies in Rome of "Roman fever."
     One way of looking at the story, therefore, is that Daisy dies because she is a fish out of her own pond. This perspective may be reinforced by the way in which James lingers over the description of the lake early in the paragraph -- "a remarkably blue lake -- a lake that it behooves every tourist to visit." The "to visit" becomes significant at the end of the story, since it implies to go to and then leave. Technically, Daisy leaves Vevey, but in a larger, symbolic sense, Vevey and Rome are part of the same "European" lake. And in that sense, Daisy never leaves.
     "Remarkably blue" suggests pure and simple, and the question of Daisy's purity and simplicity are prominent in the story. In addition, throughout the story Winterbourne regularly notes remarkable aspects of Daisy's character. This lake, however, is in Europe. The description thus undercuts any equation of America as pure and simple as opposed to the cultured international complexity of Europe. James, in other words, continually sets forth reasons for "judgment," but, since he "takes in" such a multitude of reasons, he realizes that they counter each other -- no final judgment can be made.
     It may, perhaps, be pushing this idea too far, but perhaps the parallel appositives that describe the European nature of the "Trois Couronnes" suggest that no matter how much detail we can see, we can never see enough to make a judgment. The appositives give us "German waiters," "Russian princesses," and "little Polish boys." The Italians, apparently, are out of sight and out of mind. But as the story progresses, it moves to Rome, and Daisy dies because of her close relationship to Giovanelli, an Italian.
     The theme (or perhaps I should say "a major theme") of this novella thus appears to be that life is to be lived, life is to be enjoyed, but life is not to be judged. Life is too complex, and there is too much that we cannot know about others. Thus the novella ends with:
      Nevertheless [Winterbourne] soon went back to live at Geneva, whence there continue to come the most contradictory accounts of his motives of sojourn: a report that he's "studying" hard -- an intimation that he's much interested in a very clever foreign lady.
The syntactic complexity of James's style reinforces his themes.

This border is based on a drawing by Harry W. McVickar 
for the New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892 edition of Daisy Miller.