“She breaks rather than bending to social demands” – Feminist reading of Daisy Miller by Henry James

Daisy Miller was written by American writer Henry James in 1878. The novella delineates story of a young American girl Daisy Miller narrated by Winterbourne, a young compatriot of hers who has spent most of his life in Geneva. Henry along with other characters in the novel condemns Daisy’s boldness and defiance. He often describes Daisy as seductress who is trying to trap Winterbourne. However, feminist interpretation of the novel brings forth Daisy as a heroine who represents first generation New Woman whose emergent femininity doesn’t fit into societal norms. She acquires her freedom in male dominated world through defiance.

Louis Althusser  coined the term interpellation in order to explain the way in which ideas get into our heads and have an effect on our lives, so much so that cultural ideas have such a hold on us that we believe they are our own.  Interpellation is a process, a process in which we encounter our culture’s values and internalize them. We are interpellated from the day that we are born into specific roles that society has created for us. “Talk like a lady”, parents tell little girls in order to train them in “femininity”. Girls expected to be docile and fragile whereas boys are taught to be masculine and strong.

Michel Foucault explains power dynamics in his theory; he describes truth and knowledge as intertwined. Foucault’s theory states that power is given to us through knowledge. But since men dominated all major public spheres including literature. They have manufactured a reality for women who take it as a truth. As Foucault points out: “knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of truth but has the power to make itself true”. Henceforth, women are subjected to subjugation by men who dictate their role and present is as a reality to them and a woman who defies it and seeks freedom is considered a “rebel”.

Nevertheless, Daisy Miller sets her own conventions rather than submitting to the ones dictated by society, majorly men. She doesn’t fit into patriarchal norms and asserts her freedom by doing actions which are in opposition to European concept of an ideal woman. She emancipates herself by being a defiant figure throughout. She writes her own destiny where no one dictates her:I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or to interfere with anything I do”. She goes sightseeing with Winterbourne after an only half-an-hour acquaintance. She appears on the street socializing with men and makes a spectacle of herself causing scandalous gossip. She shocks high society by walking out with Giovanelli, whom she allows a close relationship. Her ill reputation is further aggravated when she is found side by side with Giovanelli at the Colosseum after dark.

Daisy is a mysterious text and Winterbourne is a reader himself along with all the readers trying to decode her. He often describes her as a seductress who is trying to lure him into her trap. At the same time he is baffled by her beauty and unable to understand what he himself feels for Daisy. She seems like a difficult puzzle, pieces of which has to be put together to get the real “Daisy”. She resists Winterbourne’s attempts to demystify her and remains a mysterious character throughout leaving a possibility that she might have had feelings for Winterbourne not Giovenelli. The motives behind her conduct thus remain unidentified.

“How pretty they are”. Winterbourne comments, reacting to Daisy as category, rather than person. “American girls are the best girls” he quips giddily. Women have always been categorized by men into two categories. They are either angels or a monster. The former represents an ideal woman who fulfills familial duties and submits to patriarchal demands and the latter appears to be the one who doesn’t succumb to societal pressure and continue to live her life using radical ways. As Toril Moi puts it in her well renowned work Sexual/Texual politics: “the monster woman is the woman who refuses to be selfless, acts on her own initiative, who has a story to tell in short- a woman who rejects the submissive role patriarchy has reserved for her”.  Daisy resists this subjugation and dies with her freedom. She chooses to be a monster and hence, enjoys her freedom through defiance.

  Henry uses stereotypical images to represent Daisy who chooses to walk on streets rather than staying at home implying that she is rather a woman of streets, in other words a prostitute. Henceforth, the prominent figures exhibiting patriarchy in the novella including Winterbourne, Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Costello brands Daisy under “fallen woman”. The prostitute’s body as Shannon Bell describes it, is generally regarded as a resistance to cultural norms and stereotypes. Similarly, Daisy attempts to destabilize hegemonic structure and uses her body as a site of resistance by venturing into spaces specified for men .Henry portrays gendered space boundaries where women are not allowed to venture and if they do then they are considered “fallen”. Daisy demands for her rights to walk there in spite of numerous warnings. She resists the attempts made by both Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker to bracket her into social dicta.

When Mrs. Walker warns her that she is old enough to get noticed by society and it is high time that she starts behaving properly. She laughs it off and says: “I never heard anything so stiff! If this is improper Mrs. Walker”, she continues “then I am all improper and you must give me up”.  Her laugh here is reminiscent to Medusa’s laugh as interpreted by Helene Cixous in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”.  Medusa is a Greek mythological figure whose writhing snakes turned men into stone. Thus, Medusa acts as symbol of the quintessential monstrous woman, a threat to patriarchy.  Daisy’s autonomous character posits a similar threat to male dominated society.

Daisy’s demise at the end of the novel casts heroic aura where her death can be viewed as a punishment for her appropriation of masculine liberty and her subversion of feminine limitations. She breaks rather than bending to societal demands. Daisy has crossed the gender line of female sexuality to pursue her desires; her free attitude and undisciplined behavior are morally beyond redemption. She is, therefore, killed off. However, it is interesting to note that even though Daisy dies, she neither repents nor turns docile and acts as a precursor to coming age of feminists.

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/208/208-h/208-h.htm

Bell, Shannon. Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punishment. London: Tavistock.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London and New York: Routledge,2002.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa”. Trans. Cohen K and P. Signs, Summer 1976. Vol I, pp. 875-893.

 

Submitted by

– Sugandha

– Section- B

– 1306

 

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2 thoughts on ““She breaks rather than bending to social demands” – Feminist reading of Daisy Miller by Henry James”

  1. This novel seems quite ahead of its time, primarily by the portrayal of Daisy Miller who comes across as the persona of the ‘New Woman’ through her defiance of societal norms. The research work also underlines the ridiculousness and unfair severity prevailing towards women during the nineteenth century. It provides a simplistic understanding which further prompts me to read the novel. Great work!

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  2. The depiction of ‘New woman’ and the heroic aura created around her is the essence of the essay. The fact that on some level the writer aligns himself with the reader to demystify and decode ‘Daisy’ can be compared to John Fowles portrayal of ‘Sarah’. A well written essay.

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