The Opening Paragraph of
Henry James's Daisy Miller
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
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;
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,
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
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
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.