Five Minute Study Guide | Henry James – Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller was by no measure of comparison Henry James’ bestselling book, doubling the sales of all his other books. James said that he was inspired to write Daisy Miller after overhearing some expatriates talk about how a woman had been “picked up”, in those words, by an Italian man, and had enjoyed a fairly nice relationship before some small conflict caused it all to crumble. Such is the formula of Many of James’ novels, but we can see that even early in his career, he had his mind set on extrapolating the great mysteries of this world through a class of people he knew inside and out.

Daisy Miller is a clash between two classes of American expats, Mrs.Costello and Mrs.Walker. They represent the Old money, the aristocratic upper class who is familiar with European culture in a way that the nouveau riche Daisy Miller can never be. We have to remember that tourism, while having existed before the 19th century, grew in staggering popularity after the industrial revolution. So the older class is at odds with Daisy because they think it’s their duty to be exclusive. But this in turn prompts Daisy to want that life more, as their snobbishness is to her an attractive quality. While in the town of Vevey in Switzerland, she meets Winterbourne, an expatriate who has lived most of his life in Europe, and who in turn belongs to neither the new or old money institutions. They fall for each other right away, but when they agree to meet a few months later in Rome, Winterbourne realises that she has met an Italian man named Gionvanelli, an attractive romantic but suspected fortune-hunter. This type of character, too, will return in such later works as Portrait of a Lady. When in Rome, Mrs.Walker objects to the conventions she subverts, and Winterbourne soon abandons the woman he had once so easily fallen for. Soon after, though, Daisy succumbs to the Roman fever and dies soon after.

Henry James called this story a tragedy but, what Daisy fell victim to was not to swarthy European men. Rather, she was a victim of the strict and at-times unspoken code of manners that the proprietors of Old money were trying to uphold. She is at first purposely excluded, but because of how naive and nice she was, Mrs.Walker and the others had no choice to accept to. To an extent.

This divide between Daisy independently finding love and her being forcefully guided towards rich men is not just a moral qualm unique to the book. Rather, James is comparing the contemporary sentiments of the American family versus the dated ideals of the old rich. This is by no means a groundbreaking feminist work, but it does show how mannerly decorum oppresses young women who want agency. The forces that are supposed to guide women into marriage only repel women who want to be innocent by virtue of honest choices.

But Daisy Miller is interesting for many other reasons. This tale is told in the 3rd person, but primarily follows Winterbourne. This perspective adds another layer of ambiguity to the story, but also suggests that the lense he wears is the lense that  his audience wears. Daisy cannot be defined without being generalized. Even when he ponders about her past, she is either an innocent girl from rural New York or a socialite of the city with all the implications of that position. The problem is she can’t just *be*. So long as she’s subject to this gaze, she is preemptively defined.

James says that Winterbourne “had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller.” But it is only a ‘sense’, a feeling that he won’t act upon. While the consequences of Daisy getting embroiled in the conflict of manners is damaging, it does little good to Winterbourne too. In fact, his hesitation (along with his name I guess) is symbolic of his sterility in the face of these conventions. James does not specify about whether his fear is a product of society or just part of his nature, but it certainly cannot remain when someone just wants to be free from constraints. After all, the original subtitle of DM was “a study”, which just implies that Winterbourne defers his sexual feelings by the act of observation. Therein lies the keystone of this work of fiction — while she fearlessly attempts to reinforce her strong identity, she remains but a character in the eye of the beholder.

The novella is important because it foreshadows the recurring Henry James template. It’s also important because after its publication, Daisy was forever etched into the American literary imagination. This isn’t a stretch. Fitzgerald’s infamous Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby is arguably a revisiting of a character who died to defy the conventional, and if you sympathize with Winterbourne’s unrequited longing for her, I guess you could say she also defied the wishes of the reader as well.

Five Minute Study Guide | Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

J.D. Salinger wasn’t the only author to disappear from the spotlight after their breakthrough hit. Harper Lee, convinced that nothing could surpass her landmark novel on race and justice in the deep south, wrote little after To Kill a Mockingbird. Still, we can’t reel too much over what had not been written, as few other books have become so important in the education of America through literature. While it’s set in the 30’s, its subject matter came at a pivotal moment in American history, where the civil rights movement was just beginning to emerge.

To Kill a Mockingbird is told by Scout, a young girl growing up in Alabama during the Great Depression. At first the novel embraces many of the hallmarks, or I guess you could say stereotypes, of Southern literature. She focuses on family and lineage, as well as on the gradual decay of a region haunted by secrets, treachery and murder.

The novel is centered around atticus Finch, Scout’s father and a lawyer representing the young Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping the daughter of Bob Ewell, an alcoholic recluse. When the accusations fly, a lynch mob gets formed to kill Robinson, but it is ultimately stopped when Scout begins talking to one of them. Once the trial begins, the alcoholic’s claims get unravelled by Finch, and it turns out  that in all likelihood it was Ewell who beat his daughter. Nevertheless, Tom gets convicted by the jury and later suffers the consequences of trying to escape. In the end, however, Bob Ewell vows to seek revenge on Atticus, and decides to attack Scout and his children on Halloween. Luckily, though, they get spared by their quiet neighbour Boo Radley before they get hurt, and Bob gets stabbed to death.

This novel deals with pertinent issues that were affecting America at the time, so it is surprising how Harper Lee tells the story, that is, through the eyes of a young girl. This is less of a documentary account and can almost be read like an 18th century gothic horror, or even a movie script. Lee uses gothic elements to establish the setting and to characterize the chaotic reaction of the locals. The novel has an almost eerie tone, which pairs well with the hysterical motives of the mob, who seem to be possessed by what can be only be supernatural forces.

But we can’t ignore that this novel is primarily about race. What I looked for when reading this book was how Lee uses literature to formulate a narrative of acceptance. This novel is of course taught in secondary and elementary schools, and has retained its place as a moral benchmark.

One thing that Lee does is she makes several of her main characters young children who must learn about prejudice. As they develop into fully-grown adults, Atticus questions whether the next generation should relearn outdated forms of racism. In contrast to the young is a society marred by social and physical decay. This is a south stuck in a past of lucrative plantations and unlimited wealth. But now that the wealth is gone and slavery is long abolished, why should these children adopt old ways?

Lee also points to the church as being complicit in these prejudices. Aunt Alexandra’s missionaries, who represent the active spreading of Christian messages, lack the virtue to support their truisms. Unlike them, Atticus is a man who stands up for the persecuted out of principle, and from Lee’s perspective represents a better version of christianity, especially for the children to follow.

What this ultimately boils down to is what duty people have in their society. This is not just a novel about both the public and private spheres, and explores the lives of outcasts like Boo Radley, as well as rejects like Tom Robinson. Lee understands that there are barriers between people, but Atticus insists upon understanding others by walking in their shoes and imagining themselves as others.

To Kill a Mockingbird has retained a fixed identity based upon the relevance of its subject matter at the time, but recently there has been a fair amount of criticism about its treatment of black characters and even some of its white characters, who some have cited as being submissive or little more than caricatures. The pressing question is whether as readers we should accept the middle-class ideal purported by Atticus Finch, or rather reject such a notion for simply normalizing various communities all unique in their own way. I believe, though, that this novel has succeeded because of its simplicity, and that is what has allowed both children and adults to identify with the subject at hand.