Book Review: Daisy Miller by Henry James

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Daisy Miller is a novella by Henry James that appeared in The Cornhill Magazine in June–July 1878 and in book form the following year. 

It portrays the courtship of the beautiful American girl Daisy Miller by Winterbourne, a sophisticated compatriot of hers. His pursuit of her is hampered by her own flirtatiousness, which is frowned upon by the other expatriates when they meet in Switzerland and Italy.

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

An American gentleman living in Europe is intrigued by a charming American girl who disdains the rules of European society.

Part 1 

Frederick Forsythe Winterbourne, a 27-year-old American gentleman who has lived in Geneva a long time, visits his elderly aunt, Mrs. Costello, who is staying in the Swiss resort town of Vevey. 

Winterbourne’s friends explain his reason for living in Geneva so long by saying that he is “studying” there, even though he graduated from college in that “little metropolis of Calvinism” many years earlier. The truth is that he is “extremely devoted to a lady who [lives] there—a foreign lady—a person older than himself.”

It is June, a time when many wealthy American tourists come to Vevey, and “stylish” young girls can be seen everywhere. There is a “rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance-music in the morning hours, [and] a sound of high- pitched voices at all times.” Winterbourne’s aunt, a hypochondriac, is “shut up in her room smelling camphor” when her nephew arrives, so there is much free time for him to spend in idle activities. 

One day, while having breakfast at his opulent hotel, the Trois Couronnes—where his aunt is also staying— Winterbourne falls into conversation with Randolph C. Miller, a brash American boy of about 9 or 10, who, in a “sharp, hard little voice,” asks him for a lump of sugar. 

Winterbourne gives him one from his table, but warns that sugar is not good for his teeth. Randolph finds the sugar hard to chew, since most of his teeth have fallen out, but he attributes his dental problems to the European climate and dreary old hotels.

While they are talking, Randolph’s sister, Daisy (Annie P.) Miller, an exceptionally pretty girl of about 17, joins them. She is dressed in white muslin, with “a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-coloured ribbon.” She carries a large parasol and speaks to her brother as if Winterbourne were not there. 

She does not object, however, when Winterbourne joins the conversation, but Winterbourne wonders if he has been too forward in addressing her, since, in upper-class European society, “a young man [is] not at liberty to speak to a young, unmarried lady except under rarely occurring conditions.” 

Daisy talks to Winterbourne about her family and their plans to spend the winter in Rome, chatting with him as if she had known him all her life. Randolph, not to be outdone, boasts that his hometown of Schenectady, New York, is better than Europe, and that his father, Ezra B. Miller, owns a “big business” and is “rich, you bet.” Mr. Miller has remained home while his family is in Europe.

This is Daisy’s first trip to Europe, and she is having a wonderful time. But she regrets that “there isn’t any society; or, if there is, I don’t know where it keeps itself.” She tells Winterbourne that she enjoys dinner parties and social events in Schenectady and New York City, and has always had “a great deal of gentlemen’s society.” 

Winterbourne is puzzled by Daisy’s frankness, and especially by the latter statement. Such openness is not typical of the protected girls in European society, but he realizes that he has lived abroad so long that he has last touch with American values. 

After wondering if Daisy is an audacious, designing coquette, or merely an “exceedingly innocent” girl, he decides she is a “pretty American flirt” and not a “dangerous, terrible” woman. Daisy points to the old Château de Chillon in the distance and wonders if Winterbourne has ever been there. She is anxious to visit it but her mother, Mrs. Miller, suffers from dyspepsia (indigestion) and is not up to it. 

Winterbourne is fascinated by Daisy and offers to take her to the castle. But when Eugenio, her Italian courier (i.e., guide) calls her to dinner, she exits, leaving details of the Chillon excursion unresolved. Eugenio glances offensively at Winterbourne, as if to suggest that Daisy picks up men wherever she goes.

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Part 2 

Mrs. Costello, a snobbish, proper American woman living in Europe, is prone to suffering from “sickheadaches.” She has seen the flirtatious Daisy and her family in the hotel and refuses to meet her, claiming that Daisy is “very common” and “rather wild.” 

Mrs. Costello argues that Winterbourne has “lived too long out of the country” and that his innocence will cause him “to make some great mistake.” But Winterbourne still finds Daisy enchanting. 

That night he meets her walking alone in the hotel garden, and when he reluctantly tells her that his aunt does not want to meet her, Daisy laughs at Mrs. Costello’s snub. 

She introduces Winterbourne to her mother, who seems ineffectual and distracted by Randolph’s recent unmanageable behaviour, and who does not object to a stranger’s taking her daughter to Chillon. Winterbourne finds this odd, since it is unheard of in Europe for a young society girl to go out with a man unchaperoned.

Daisy, however, says she wants to travel to the Château immediately, by boat, even though it is night. But when the courier objects, she drops the plan, saying that she had only wanted to make a fuss. Her attitude mystifies and intrigues Winterbourne.

Two days later, Winterbourne takes Daisy to the Château de Chillon. He feels the beginnings of a romance, but also realizes that many people consider Daisy to be common and vulgar, as even he suspects she might be. 

On the boat to Chillon, Winterbourne enjoys Daisy’s easy, personal conversation, but she criticizes him for being too solemn. At Chillon, he realizes that Daisy has no interest in the castle’s history, since she lives very much in the present. She is indignant when Winterbourne says he must leave Vevey for Geneva the next day and accuses him of rushing home to a “charmer” (i.e., mistress) in Geneva. 

After Winterbourne denies the existence of such a woman, Daisy makes him promise to visit her in Rome, where she, her mother, and Randolph will spend the winter. She likes Winterbourne’s intelligence and believes she can learn from him.

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Part 3 

When Winterbourne arrives in Rome in January to visit Mrs. Costello—who has taken an apartment there for a few months—he is informed by his aunt that Daisy is behaving disgracefully, associating with Italian fortune-hunters and introducing them into polite society. Winterbourne argues that the Millers are simply ignorant of society’s customs, but it disappoints him that he was unable to make a stronger impression on Daisy in Vevey.

Winterbourne and Daisy meet again at the house of Mrs. Walker, an American society woman who has lived for years in Rome and who is an old acquaintance of Winterbournes, having met him several winters earlier in Geneva when her children were in school there. 

Though Daisy is happy to see Winterbourne and is friendly toward him, she asks Mrs. Walker if she might bring her handsome Italian friend, Mr. Giovanelli, to Mrs. Walker’s forthcoming party. 

Daisy then says she is going to walk alone to the Pincian Gardens to meet Mr. Giovanelli, which Mrs. Walker and Winterbourne consider both shocking and dangerous.

Not only is the carriage traffic hazardous at this late-afternoon hour, but a young lady of Daisy’s age should not be seen in public alone with a gentleman. The respectable Winterbourne offers to walk with her and she accepts, while Daisy’s mother—a nouveau riche who knows little about the rules of society—worries more about her daughter’s catching a fever than about her violating strongly upheld social customs.

Winterbourne soon meets Giovanelli, an urbane fortune-hunter with a “brilliant smile.” Winterbourne regrets that Daisy cannot tell the difference between a true gentleman and a “clever imitation of one.” Jealous of his rival, Winterbourne accompanies Daisy and Giovanelli on their walk, though Giovanelli “had not bargained for a party of three.” Winterbourne realizes that it would be easier for him if Daisy treated him with indifference instead of tacitly encouraging his affections. 

That way, at least he might forget about her. He finds Daisy alluring, but her “childish gaiety” goes against the grain of the established values he has acquired after years of living in Geneva.

Fifteen minutes later, an agitated Mrs. Walker drives by in her carriage and asks Daisy to join her, knowing that it is an immense social error for Daisy to walk alone with two men and not with her mother. (“Fifty people have noticed her,” Mrs. Walker adds.) 

For appearances’ sake, Mrs. Walker suggests that they drive Daisy around the square for half an hour “so that the world may see she is not running absolutely wild.” Daisy refuses Mrs. Walker’s offer, claiming to be quite content the way she is. 

A horrified Mrs. Walker replies that Daisy’s nonchalance with men “is not the custom here.” With no sign of malice, Daisy responds that it ought to be the custom. Winterbourne, serving as mediator, suggests that Daisy follow Mrs. Walker’s advice. But Daisy, who is pleased with her free-minded behavior, scoffs at Mrs. Walker’s “stiff” ideas and replies, “If this is improper, Mrs. Walker, then I am all improper, and you must give me up.” 

Furthermore, Daisy does not want to hurt Giovanelli’s feelings by abandoning him abruptly after he has looked forward to their outing. A teary-eyed Mrs. Walker imperiously announces that if Winterbourne does not climb into the carriage beside her, she will never speak to him again. He does so, but reluctantly.

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Part 4 

During the next two days, Winterbourne tries to see Daisy at her hotel, but she is not in. Mrs. Walker’s party takes place on the evening of the third day.

Though Mrs. Miller arrives on time, Daisy arrives after 11:00 P.M.—three hours late, and with Giovanelli. Mrs. Walker, still upset by Daisy’s behavior two days earlier, addresses her coolly. While chatting with Winterbourne, Daisy gleefully admits that she is a “tearful, frightful flirt,” and Winterbourne confesses that he wishes Daisy would flirt only with him. He adds that, as a young unmarried woman, she is ruining her reputation by spending so much time with Giovanelli.

Daisy, who considers Giovanelli only a friend, is shocked when Winterbourne suggests she actually loves the Italian. When the party ends, Mrs. Walker turns her back on Daisy, snubbing her completely. From this moment on, all doors of society are closed to Daisy and Giovanelli.

Winterbourne tries to see Daisy as often as possible, but she spends most of her time with Giovanelli. 

Mrs. Costello tells Winterbourne not to be surprised if Daisy suddenly announces that she is engaged to Giovanelli—who, it is revealed, is a respectable lawyer, but one who, according to Winterbourne, “doesn’t move in the first circles” and who has “nothing but his handsome face to offer.” When Winterbourne goes to visit Daisy at her hotel one afternoon in early spring, he does not find her in; he does, however, exchange a few words with her mother. 

Even the impartial Mrs. Miller thinks that Daisy is behaving as if she were engaged. Winterbourne, astounded by Mrs. Miller’s lack of parental control over Daisy, makes no attempt to “place her upon her guard” about Daisy’s conduct.

A few days later, Winterbourne meets Daisy and Giovanelli in the flower-filled ruins of the Palace of the Caesars. While Giovanelli strolls away to pluck some flowers, Winterbourne tells Daisy that she spends too much time with the Italian and, as a result, will continue to be snubbed by society. 

After expressing her surprise that Winterbourne would tolerate the criticism of other people about her, Daisy impulsively tells him that she is engaged. But just as he reluctantly comes to believe her, she quickly denies the engagement.

A week later, Winterbourne wanders through the Colosseum late at night and overhears a girl talking to her companion. It is Daisy with Giovanelli and they are discussing Winterbourne. The latter suddenly concludes that he no longer cares about the complex American girl, and decides to stop pursuing her. 

But as Winterbourne walks away, Daisy recognizes him, and he warns her abruptly not to linger in the Colosseum, since it is a “nest of malaria” (James also calls malaria “Roman fever”). She departs indignantly, hurt by Winterbourne’s lack of faith in her, and crying that she doesn’t care if she catches the fever, now that she has fulfilled her dream of seeing the Colosseum by moonlight.

The next morning, Daisy is deathly ill. She sends word to Winterbourne that she was never engaged to Giovanelli. A week later, she dies. At the funeral, Giovanelli, who knows that he never stood a chance of marrying the socially and financially superior Daisy, tells Winterbourne that Daisy was the most beautiful, likable, and innocent person he had ever known. 

Winterbourne leaves Rome immediately after the funeral, and for several months thinks about Daisy and her “mystifying manners.” He meets his aunt again in Vevey the following summer, and tells her that he feels guilty about the hurt he caused Daisy that night at the Colosseum, Puzzled, Mrs. Costello asks him to explain further. 

He replies that Daisy had sent him a message before her death and that he didn’t understand it at that time. In her message Daisy indicated that she “would have appreciated one’s [i.e., Winterbourne’s] esteem,” and he is now certain that she had strong feelings for him. 

Winterbourne confesses to his aunt that she had been correct a year earlier when she warned him that he had lived in Europe too long to get involved with a naive young American girl.

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Key Characters

Daisy Miller (Annie P. Miller): young American society girl, aged 17. Innocent, charming, pretty, intelligent, graceful, and mysterious. She is visiting Europe for the first time and talks frankly about herself and her views in a quiet and pleasant voice. She has no interest in history or art, lives for the moment, and acts spontaneously without considering the consequences. The American colony in Rome considers her vulgar because she refuses to comply with their social code. She sees the artificiality of their ways and does not admire them. (“They’re only pretending to be shocked. They don’t really care a straw what I do.”)

Frederick Forsythe Winterbourne: an American gentleman living in Geneva, aged 27. He is sophisticated, correct, formal, never spontaneous, and forever conscious of his own and others’ behavior. He is intelligent, perceptive, and aware of the values dear to Europeanized Americans. Having lived for many years in Europe, he has lost touch with the American spirit of freshness and openness. He is torn between his fascination with Daisy’s natural exuberance and his respect for European society’s strict code of values (e.g., he tells his aunt that the Millers are not “bad” people, just “ignorant”). He is romantically attracted to Daisy but unable to overlook her conduct and give in to his emotions. He withdraws to the safety of his established values.

Mrs. Miller: mother of Daisy and Randolph. She is thin, vague, and distracted, unable to manage her children. She is unfamiliar (and consequently unconcerned) with upper-class European social conventions.

Mrs. Costello: Winterbourne’s elderly aunt, an American society woman living in Europe. She serves as her nephew’s confidante. She is nervous, snobbish, proper, and prone to headaches. She is honest and intimate with Winterbourne but aloof with those she considers social inferiors. She is appalled by Daisy’s behavior and horrified by Winterbourne’s interest in the young American.

Mrs. Walker: an American society woman living in Rome and an old acquaintance of Winterbourne. She is kind and generous to her friends but rigid with people such as Daisy who violate the rules of high society. She believes passionately in the correctness of her social code.

Mr. Giovanelli: Daisy’s Italian admirer, a fortune-hunter and an attorney. He is handsome, suave, and well-dressed but not a “real gentleman” in Winterbourne’s eyes. He knows that he is socially inferior to Daisy and that she will never marry him but is flattered by her fascination with him.

Randolph C. Miller: Daisy’s brother, aged 9. He is a selfish, obnoxious, and unmanageable enfant terrible. He dislikes Europe and prefers the pampered life of Schenectady, New York.

Main Themes & Ideas

The story centers around the clash of values between upper-class Americans and Europeans, as observed by American expatriates like Winterbourne, who has lived too long in Europe and lost touch with American vitality.

Daisy is portrayed as a carefree, confident American girl who enjoys innocent activities such as travel, sightseeing, and harmless flirting. In contrast, Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Costello are strong defenders of European social standards for young upper-class women. Despite being Americans, they have adopted European social customs with great enthusiasm.

The clash between the new, ambitious, and thriving American culture and the old, ordered European culture shows Americans as energetic, spontaneous, naive, brash, irreverent, loud, and lacking in artistic sensibility. Europeans are seen as reserved, informed, ceremonious, and, although sometimes pompous, endowed with a strong sense of civilization. Daisy represents the innocent and charming side of the American character, while Randolph and Mrs. Miller represent the vulgar side.

The author admires features of both cultures: the honesty and disarming innocence of Americans and the good manners and knowledge of Europeans. The author does not attempt to portray all types and classes of Americans or Europeans, but whenever the two value systems clash, the author prefers the European system.

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1. Satirical Brilliance

James’s skill in satire is on full display in Daisy Miller. The protagonist, Winterbourne, is a caricature of a dilettante, a poseur, and a prig. His wealthy Aunt, Mrs. Costello, is a snooty old biddy who represents propriety and discretion. The Millers, who are prototypical “ugly Americans” of touristic prominence, are objects of satire as much as Winterbourne and his Aunt. James’s ability to perceive and portray his own uselessness as a mere onlooker at life is one of the redeeming qualities of his work.

2. Luscious Minx

For a man and writer whose sexuality was so peculiarly repressed, James has created a compelling character in Daisy Miller. She is a brilliant ‘study’ of the American personality that Europeans have, then and now, found utterly appalling, naive, and gauche…and insidiously alluring. Poor Winterbourne, stiff and epicene, can’t keep his eyes off her. In the end, however, his fascination amounts merely to a kind of obsessive observation, which is the core of the story, the voyeurism that underlies Henry James’s literary genius.

3. Collision of Values

Daisy Miller is a 100-page book that effectively captures the collision of values between the free-spirited American heiress Daisy and the established European aristocracy. Henry James wrote many stories that explored class, mores, manners, and etiquette, and in Daisy Miller, he creates a character that challenges the societal norms of her time.

Daisy’s curiosity and desire to experience everything life has to offer clashes with the European sense of propriety, causing men to find her refreshing and dangerous, while women find her bold and gauche. This dynamic points to their fears and highlights the restrictive nature of the established European aristocracy.

In just 100 pages, James masterfully portrays the conflict between the old world and the new world values, leaving the reader pondering its ideas for a long time.


1. Predictable Romance

The book follows the typical formula of romantic drama popular in its time. Daisy Miller, the stunningly gorgeous rebel and liberated gal, is pursued by a distinguished and successful man. Will she choose stability and money, or rebel against convention and choose the “bad boy”? The plot may be mildly entertaining, but it adheres to a dreary formula. If you find the whole Jane Austen thing entertaining, you may enjoy it. Otherwise, it will be better than Melatonin.

2. Lack of Realism

While the book is intended to focus on realism, it reads more like a flight of fancy. The author uses far too many obscure verbs that do little more than impress upon the reader his mastery of the English language. The tale rings hollow, and the author fails to do justice to the settings he placed the events of this work in.

3. Unrealistic Dramatic Ending

The novella ends abruptly and unemotionally, with the death of a main character that seems to lack impact. It raises questions about the purpose of the death and whether it was necessary at all. Additionally, Daisy catching the “Roman Fever” (Malaria) seems unrealistically dramatic for this type of novel.


In conclusion, Henry James’s Daisy Miller is a well-written novella that explores the themes of class, social mores, and gender roles in the late 19th century. While the characters and their world may seem foreign and outdated to modern readers, James’s skillful portrayal of them makes them come alive on the page.

He is able to capture the cruelty of social judgment and the desire to marry well, while also adding his own unique twists and surprises to the story. Although there are some flaws and predictability to the plot, the overall experience of reading Daisy Miller is worthwhile, especially for those interested in classic literature and the society of the time.

About The Author

Collins has also taught at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, BusinessWeek and Harvard Business Review. He is an author, lecturer and consultant. One of his previous books, Built to Last, was a best seller.

Daisy Miller was inspired by an acquaintance who pointed out that his previous book examined only how great companies stay great, not how they can become great in the first place.

Buy The Book: Daisy Miller

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