Daisy Miller is among the easiest to read of all James’s stories and, from the time the title character makes her appearance to near the end, the most entertaining. Daisy is a young American visiting Vevey, Switzerland on the shore of Lake Geneva with her mother. Delighting in the company of gentlemen and impatient with the constraints on feminine behavior, Daisy is for those reasons much talked about and something of a scandal among the guests vacationing at Vevey.
Frederick Winterbourne, the narrator of Daisy’s story, is also an American but one who has by his own account stayed away too long from the country of his birth. He has made Geneva, the home base of John Calvin, his home and appropriately so. Whereas Daisy’s vivacity reflects the freedom-loving boldness of her native land, Winterbourne has distanced himself from a brash American insistence on liberty while retaining its underlying fear of a Calvinist God whose predetermined will saves or damns people independently of their behavior. Also caught up in his adherence to old world rules of social class and courtly manners, Winterbourne’s name describes him well. He is a cold, isolated man beset with latent desires for spring like warmth and intimacy. Daisy calls him “stiff.”
Meanwhile Winterbourne accuses Daisy of being a flirt, as though her womanly attraction to him and other men must remain as coyly hidden as his plain-as-day attraction to her. Daisy’s reply—that of course she is a flirt—has endeared her to readers and yet the question remains whether her delightful candor can survive in a world as hung up on priggish conventions as hers and ours.