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Duality Of Nature In Henry James' Daisy Miller

1788 words - 7 pages

Within each of us lies the potential for good and evil--virtue and vice.  Our daily actions reflect the combination of good and bad in a world that is neither black nor white.  In literature, however, characters often depict complete goodness or vice in a world that holds no room for a duality of nature.  Winterbourne possesses a notion that Daisy Miller must be restrictively good or bad, but the concept is not as black and white as he perceives it to be.  A realistic portrayal of Daisy Miller as an infusion of good and bad—virtue and vice—in a world full of gray increases her moral influence upon us, as we too, have inherent dual natures in an imperfect world.

            A quest into the nature of the young American girl, Daisy Miller, is the task Winterbourne seems to struggle with through his acquaintance to her.  Winterbourne “felt that he had lived at Geneva so long that he had lost a good deal; he had become dishabituated to the American tone…Was she simply a pretty girl from New York State—were they all like that, the pretty girls who had a good deal of gentlemen’s society?  Or was she also a designing, an audacious, an unscrupulous young person?” (13).  Conflict battles in the mind of this man as he struggles for an answer to the question, “Is Daisy a good girl?”  A clear cut answer to the question alludes Winterbourne as he continually answers “yes” or “no” to the dispute. 

            Many occasions bring Winterbourne to answer the affirmative—Daisy is a good girl—at least he gives her the benefit of the doubt.  Daisy “was only a pretty American flirt.  Winterbourne was almost grateful for having found the formula that applied to Miss Daisy Miller” (14).  The certainty that flies around Winterbourne as he is so sure that there is a clear answer to the formula of Miss Daisy Miller becomes amusing as he doubts his first assertions.  He believes her to be a flirt, but nevertheless an upright girl.  Yet, as soon as he “finds the formula that applies to Miss Daisy Miller” he slides to the negative end of the spectrum.

            Winterbourne’s response to Daisy’s behavior strikes a cord of distrust and lack of faith in her virtue.  When Miss Miller walks about the streets on the arm of Mr. Giovanelli, Mrs. Walker feels the need to follow Daisy and save her reputation.  Winterbourne’s trust in Daisy’s goodness is put to a test as she asks, “Does Mr. Winterbourne think…that—to save my reputation—I ought to get into the carriage?” (55).  Winterbourne betrays his trust in virtue as he reflects that it is “strange to hear her speak that way of her ‘reputation.’  But he himself, in fact, must speak in accordance with gallantry.  The finest gallantry, here, was to simply tell her the truth; and the truth…was that Daisy Miller should take Mrs. Walker’s advice” (56-57).  A benefit of doubt was given early to Daisy from Winterbourne, but he quickly retracts the faith in Miss Miller as he openly objects to her actions—sustaining his...

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