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A Social Ideology of Etiquette

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Daisy Miller is a potent social commentary that considers the ideologies of transplanted Americans residing in Europe. During the late nineteenth century, the United States surfaced as a political and economic power. Wealthy Americans, anxious to create their own elite society, embraced the well-established customs of the European aristocracy. In fact, several of the most affluent families relocated to Europe to refine their mimicry and distinguish themselves from their contemporaries. Daisy Miller examines how the European ideology of etiquette is adopted by high-society Americans and subsequently transformed into a rigid reality that persecutes James’s ill-mannered title character until her demise.

Literary theorist Louis Althusser suggests, “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (294). Thus, etiquette as an ideology is not, intrinsically, a system that physically rules the actions and thoughts (essentially, the existence) of its adherents. However, an ideology is capable of transcending its traditional confines when an individual opts to assign it any measure of material existence (Althusser 296). Such is the case in Daisy Miller. Winterbourne, Mrs. Costello, Mrs. Walker, and Mrs. Miller all regard etiquette as more than an idle ideology. They allow their adopted system of European etiquette to dictate their actions and structure their lives. Indeed, each has endowed etiquette with a material existence.

In contrast, Daisy Miller affords no credence to the borrowed European ideology. Instead, Daisy argues that European etiquette is “stiff and unreasonable.” Throughout the novella, Daisy is relentless in her effort to maintain her independence from such social conventions. According to Lisa Johnson, “She [Daisy] breaks rather than bending to social demands” (Johnson 42). Rather than conform, Daisy delights in underscoring the absurdity of etiquette. She contends that the system of manners is mere bigotry (Johnson 48). Her decisive rejection of traditional European etiquette results in her ultimate isolation from society.

Readers are first introduced to Daisy’s disregard for traditional decorum by her earliest exchange with Winterbourne. While observing the elegant Miss Miller from afar, Winterbourne recalls that a gentleman seldom has the social liberty to approach an unmarried woman. Nevertheless, intrigued by Daisy’s beauty, he decides to risk rejection by speaking to her. Prepared to encounter a shy, timid young girl, Winterbourne is surprised by Daisy’s confidence. It is revealed, “It became obvious that she was much disposed towards conversation” (6). Both delighted and shocked, Winterbourne contemplates the possibility of the loquacious Daisy being a coquette. This rather presumptuous insult is a consequence of Daisy’s slight to traditional social etiquette. In late nineteenth century European society, the idea of an unchaperoned young lady “chatting” with a gentleman (for all to see) was completely unacceptable. Despite benefiting from Daisy’s faux pas, Winterbourne categorizes Daisy as a flirt.

To be labeled a coquette/flirt in European society is to be branded a whore in American society. While flirting is a perfectly acceptable form of playful (sexual) banter in American society, it is considered a vulgar gaffe in European society (Fogel 60). Winterbourne informs Daisy of this fact at Mrs. Walker’s soiree, “Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here” (45). However, even by American standards, readers are inclined to join Winterbourne in questioning the innocence of Daisy Miller. Brazenly rendezvousing with recent male acquaintances and requesting to be rowed to the remote Chateau de Chillon approximately two hours before midnight are at the very least questionable behaviors. It is interesting to note that these concerns of innocence reveal the double standards entrenched in Western thought. Why are American readers not concerned with Winterbourne’s unquestionable promiscuity? Perhaps American readers too are so consumed by an outdated ideology that they agree with Mrs. Costello: “Of course a man may know every one [sic]. Men are welcome to the privilege!” (28).

Undoubtedly, Mrs. Costello has granted social etiquette (as an ideology) an extremely rigid and persecutive material existence. She insists to Winterbourne that the Millers are dreadfully common, and it is her social duty to reject them. In response to a plea from Winterbourne to accept Daisy, Mrs. Costello asserts, “I can’t, my dear Frederick. I would if I could, but I can’t” (13). Mrs. Costello has allowed an ideology to become her restrictive reality. Unfortunately, the adoption of this ideology has far graver consequences for the “dreadful” Daisy Miller.

Daisy’s intimate relationship with Eugenio, the Miller’s courier, is yet another unforgivable faux pas identified by Mrs. Costello. Disgusted, the gossipy matron alleges, “They treat the courier like a familiar friend, like a gentleman. I shouldn’t wonder if he dines with them” (14). Obviously ignorant of European society and etiquette, the Millers rely heavily upon Eugenio for guidance and advice. For instance, Eugenio advises Daisy that it would not be “proper” to accompany Winterbourne on a rowboat ride an hour prior to midnight. Nevertheless, it is far more improper by European standards for the Millers to regard their servant as a gentleman deserving the slightest iota of deference. Furthermore, Mrs. Costello reports that Eugenio smokes in the evening while lounging in the garden with the Millers. For a servant to smoke sprawled in front of his employers is a deplorable offense to European etiquette. Winterbourne concludes that Daisy is uncultivated and “rather wild” (14). Once again, James emphasizes that both Mrs. Costello and Winterbourne afford the European ideology of etiquette a material (real) existence.

Daisy’s refusal to acquiesce to Mrs. Walker’s entreaties to board her carriage, abandoning the garish Giovanelli, is the most significant and dramatic blunder of etiquette in the novel. By parading down the street with a “spurious gentleman,” Daisy risks ruining her already tarnished reputation. Elated to have such a gentleman by her side, Daisy foolishly ignores Mrs. Walker’s admonitions. The concerned Mrs. Walker cautions, “You are old enough to be more reasonable. You are old enough, dear Miss Miller, to be talked about” (39). It is quite unacceptable for an unmarried young lady to be seen in the company of a lower-class Italian walking to the Pincio (Fogel 62). Therefore, Mrs. Walker passionately endeavors to dissuade Daisy from continuing her boorish jaunt. Finally, in an emotional retort to Mrs. Walker’s scolding, Daisy replies, “I never heard anything so stiff! If this is improper, Mrs. Walker… then I am all improper, and you must give me up” (40). In this dramatized scene that leaves tears in the eyes of the frustrated Mrs. Walker, Daisy candidly communicates her tragic flaw. Because Daisy refuses to adhere to Europe’s system of etiquette, she is spurned by the ideology’s adherents and forsaken by society.

Notwithstanding Mrs. Walker’s seemingly genuine concern for Daisy’s reputation, the astute reader should realize that the passionate matron’s pleas are fueled by more selfish motives. As an affluent American enjoying the benefits of a European society tailored to her wants and needs, Mrs. Walker will make every effort to preserve the ideology that empowers her. Etiquette as an ideology structures her reality; thus, Mrs. Walker recognizes Daisy Miller’s rejection of etiquette as an affront to her reality. In an attempt to assuage the poignancy of Daisy’s affront, Mrs. Walker struggles to obtain an “apology” from the vivacious non-conformist. Had Daisy consented to desert her companion and enter Mrs. Walker’s carriage, she would have (figuratively) apologized, and by doing so, lost the battle for autonomy to Mrs. Walker’s oppressive ideology.

Indeed, it is debatable whether any character in the novella is sincerely concerned with Daisy Miller, the individual. Instead, Daisy Miller represents a prize for each of her pursuers. For Winterbourne, Daisy epitomizes the ultimate sexual conquest. After all, according to Winterbourne, “American girls are the best!” (4). However, Winterbourne also yearns to tame the “young American flirt” by saddling her with traditional European ideologies of etiquette. Validation of this argument is found throughout the novel with each attempt to refine and educate Daisy about European customs. For the ostentatious Giovanelli, Daisy is a trophy. Well-aware of his (low) status in society, Giovanelli exploits Daisy as an embellishment to his already grandiose style. Nevertheless, their relationship is mutualistic. By gallivanting around Rome with Giovanelli, Daisy clearly articulates her desire to remain unburdened by any confining social ideologies. Upon realizing this verity, Daisy Miller emerges as James’s most self-actualized/developed character.

Enchanted by the allure of the ancient Roman arena, Winterbourne discovers the amorous Daisy and Giovanelli in the Coliseum (Fogel 47). Mortified and embittered, he resolves that Daisy Miller is no longer a woman to be respected (54). At this pivotal moment, Winterbourne succumbs to the pressures of his private society (Mrs. Costello and Mrs. Walker) and allows the ideology of social etiquette to materialize into a rigid, elitist reality. His attitude towards Daisy mutates to one of indifference almost immediately. At this point, all of society (except Giovanelli) has rejected Daisy. Amidst derisive laughter, Winterbourne half-heartedly suggests that Daisy relocate to a less “fatal” locale to avoid contracting Roman fever. Despondent and regretful in her last moments with Winterbourne, Daisy seems to silently acknowledge her social death while audibly foreshadowing her physical death.

Winterbourne later discovers that the flirtatious Daisy regarded him fondly and had no intention of marrying Giovanelli. Perhaps James crafted such a tragic ending to discourage society from forcing its members to conform to any particular ideology. While most people are willing to adjust and adhere to the social etiquette of society, there will undoubtedly be a few individuals that opt to maintain their own customs. Should these people be punished for their beliefs? What qualifications must a society possess to judge these individuals? Daisy Miller, a true individual, was judged and persecuted by the upper-crust of American society in Europe; this persecution led to her demise. Daisy Miller by Henry James continues to charm and engage modern audiences because its story and characters are timeless. More than a century separates modern society from the society examined in the novella, yet readers readily relate to the situations and sentiments of James’s characters. Daisy Miller is a sociological study. Our interest in Daisy and Winterbourne is an interest in ourselves.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Literary Theory and Anthology. Ed. J. Rivkin. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Fogel, Daniel. Daisy Miller: A Dark Comedy of Manners. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

James, Henry. Daisy Miller. New York: Dover Publications, 1995.

Johnson, Lisa. “Daisy Miller: Cowboy Feminist.” The Henry James Review 222E1 (2001): 41-58. On-line. Internet. 30 April 2004. Available WWW: http://muse.jhu.edu.spot.lib.auburn.edu/journals /henry_james_review/v022/22.1johnson.html.

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A Social Ideology of Etiquette. (2018, May 20). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/etiquette-a-social-ideology/
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