Henry James’ Daisy Miller is characterized by the author’s most frequent theme in his earlier works: the expatriate American living overseas. Daisy Miller capitalizes on the Gilded Age, the period from 1865-1900, a time of great industrial growth and wealth with the result that many Americans travelled to Europe. (Cashman, 1993, xii)  It is the clash of these cultures that are highlighted in James’ Daisy Miller. Through Mr. Winterbourne, the reader is left with the impression that James’ sympathies are with the Europeans particularly their commitment to culture, education and the arts. (Wardley, 1991, 232-254)

Frederick Winterbourne, a American educated and living in Europe was not entirely averse to American artlessness and decadence.  He recognized in Daisy Miller, an American in Europe an certain innocence which manifested itself in an emphasis on honesty and frankness rather than art.  Winterbourne’s impression of Daisy Miller is related by the narrator as follows:

“He set her down as hopelessly childish and shallow, as such mere giddiness and ignorance incarnate as was powerless either to heed or to suffer. Then at other moments he couldn't doubt that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced. He asked himself whether the defiance would come from the consciousness of innocence or from her being essentially a young person of the reckless class.” (James, 2001, 67)

As much as James uses Winterbourne to accentuate the European attitude toward the uncultured and unrefined American, he also uses Daisy to accentuate the sadness and loneliness associated with the safe, yet unlived life.  In trying to figure Daisy out, Winterbourne’s own life is unfulfilling and sadly unlived.  More to the point Winterbourne’s name alone is symbolic of his cold nature. (Pollack, 1993, 65-89)  Daisy, named for a common flower, responds to the coldness she senses in Winterbourne and his passionless attraction to her.  In one exchange Winterbourne tells Daisy that he would prefer it if she confined her flirtations to him, to which Daisy replies:

“Ah thank you, thank you very much: you're the last man I should think of flirting with. As I've had the pleasure of informing you, you're too stiff.” (James, 2001, 62)

Despite his preoccupation with Daisy and trying to figure her out, the novel climaxes with the revelation that Winterbourne had perhaps committed too much time to a distraction that added nothing to his life.  When he encounters Daisy at the Coliseum at novel’s end he comes to the realization that:

“She was a young lade about...whose perversity a foolish puzzled gentleman need no longer trouble his head or his heart.” (James, 2001, 74)

At the heart of Winterbourne’s curiosity and distraction is the theme of innocence. Winterbourne is constantly focused on whether or not Daisy Miller is innocent.  Yet, James gives innocence several different meanings in Daisy Miller. Innocent could mean naive, as represented by Mrs. Costello, who like Winterbourne is a Europeanized American.  She looks upon Winterbourne as innocent as in naive. (James, 2001)  Mrs. Walker, Winterbourne’s uppity aunt looks upon Daisy as innocent in the sense that she is crass and uneducated. (James, 2001)

For Winterbourne the Millers are innocent in the sense that they are ignorant. (James, 2001)  For him, Daisy is innocent in that she is a harmless flirt. (James, 2001)  As the novel moves along, he often questions Daisy’s innocence and fears that she might be immodest and indecent in mind. However, Daisy is used by James to symbolize more than merely innocence.  She represents ignorance, youthful energy, genuine intentions, disregard for social barriers, no sense of propriety and a total disregard fro uniform adaptation of other’s social and moral codes. (Wardley, 1991, 232-254)

James is careful to provide Daisy with the ambiguity that leaves it almost impossible to determine whether or not she is morally flawed or merely strengthened in her resolve to cultivate her own self-identity. (Wardley, 1991, 232-254)  Randolph, however, is another matter entirely.  He is symbolic of the typical obnoxious American tourist.  Randolph Miller is Daisy’s little brother of nine or ten years old and his early introduction to the reader is one of chaos and bad manners.  Winterbourne’s first impression is detailed in the following excerpt:

“He carried in his hand a long alpenstock, the sharp point of which he thrust into everything he approached – the flower beds, the garden-benches, the trains of the ladies’ dresses.” (James, 2001, 27)

The Coliseum, where the novel reaches its climax is symbolic of lost innocence, which as previously noted is a concurrent theme throughout Daisy Miller.  Toward the end of the novel, Daisy is at the Coliseum with the Italian gentleman she traversed around Italy with out the benefit of a chaperone. The Coliseum has its place in history for the Christian martyrdom.  When Winterbourne encounters the couple at the Coliseum he hears Daisy tell her Italian escort:

“...he looks at us as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs!” (James, 2001, 73)

In an equally symbolic manner, it is at this venue, the Coliseum, where Winterbourne decides that Daisy is not innocent and he is determined to expunge her from his heart and mind.  He concludes that she is beyond saving and not worth his troubles. (James, 2001, 74)

The two cities featured in Daisy Miller are also symbolic of the distinction between American and European cultures.  Although Geneva is referred to as “the dark old city at the other end of the lake,” (James, 2001, 29) and is the place where Winterbourne calls home, it is the place from which Calvinism originated, a sect which has had a lot of influence on American culture. (Wardley, 1991, 232-254)

Rome on the other hand is deeply connected to the refined and proper characters in James’ Daisy Miller,  such as Winterbourne, Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Costello.  Rome is also characterized by a number of contrasts.  For example it is the place for which ancient civilization is associated and it is also the cornerstone of the Renaissance.  Rome also represents triumph as much as it represents corruption.  Moreover, it is a city where its own prowess was self-destructive. (Wardley, 1991, 232-254)

Perhaps more importantly, Rome represents ruins which is symbolic of death and extinction.  In this way the city of Rome is symbolic of everything that Daisy herself is not.  Daisy is refreshing and new, she is youthful and frank as well as innocent and naive. (Wardley, 1991, 232-254)

Another important symbol in Daisy Miller is the portrait of Pope Innocent X.  It represents the hypocrisy of both American and European aristocracy offset against the unrelenting prejudice against Daisy Miller who represents nature and candour.  The following excerpt which accompanies the introduction of the portrait which hangs above Winterbourne and a friend adequately conveys its symbolism:

“His friend...said: ‘And in the same cabinet, by the way, I enjoyed sight of an image of a different kind; that little American who's so much more a work of nature than of art and whom you pointed out to me last week.’ In answer to Winterbourne's enquiries his friend narrated that the little American–prettier now than ever–was seated with a companion in the secluded nook in which the papal presence is enshrined.” (James, 2001, 65)

Finally, the Roman Fever which Daisy contracts that night at the Coliseum and suffers death as result of it symbolized the fatal impact of those that judge and criticize Daisy Miller.  In the end, she give her mother a message to pass along to Winterbourne before she passes away.  The message is that she did care what Mr. Winterbourne had thought of her all along.  This message, although lost on Winterbourne immediately does find meaning with him a year later when he tells his aunt that he had been gravely mistaken and that perhaps he’d been in Europe for far too long.  Despite this revelation he returns to Geneva.

The clash of cultures were obviously unresolved even with Daisy’s death.  The only change observed was the admission from Winterbourne that he had perhaps judged Daisy far too harshly and that it rush to judgment had come from the long influence Europe had on him.  Be that as it may, it appears that nothing changed for him at all.  His return to Geneva symbolizes a return to this former way of life.  A life that was as unfulfilling as it was artificial.