18 January 2019

Clash of Cultures and Identities in “Daisy Miller” and “On Being Brought from Africa to America”

Daisy Miller by Henry James

In his novella Daisy Miller, Henry Miller sheds light on the clash of two cultures and identities: one is the New World with its freshness, innocence, ignorance and simplicity, while the other is the Old Continent with its Victorian moral codes and rigid social and gender hierarchies. The story’s protagonist, Daisy, a young American tourist, along with her unorthodox mother and spoiled kid brother, represents the new American identity in the 19th century: “uncultured”, unsophisticated, “vulgar”, but fresh, direct, bold, outgoing, and innocent. The story’s other protagonist, Winterbourne, a young American man but assimilated into the European culture, along with his aunt and other Europeanized expatriates embodies the traits of the traditional Old Continent: established, “cultured”, sophisticated, restrictive with rules and behavior codes. The cultural gap of the new and old collides and generates conflict and misunderstanding in character’s perception of each other. The clash hinders further development of Daisy and Winterbourne’s budding relationship and propels the story to a tragic end as Daisy refuses to comply with the social norm of the traditional world.  

The two opposing identities and collision are evident from the beginning of the story when Winterbourne first met Daisy. Other than a cry from Randolph, “He’s an American Man!” there were no other formal greetings or formality discerned so he started to talk to Daisy: “This little boy and I have made acquaintance.” Then he was aware right away that “In Geneva… a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely occurring conditions;” and “he wondered whether he had gone too far.” Daisy, on the other hand, chatted freely, and “was not in the least embarrassed herself.” She glanced at him, and “he saw that this glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking. It was not, however, what would have called an immodest glance, for the young girl’s eyes were singular honest and fresh.” However, not everyone share this perception. Winterbourne’s aunt refused to be introduced to the “vulgar” family and called Daisy “a dreadful girl”. His other friends asked him to distance himself from Daisy as she was an unabashed flirt and enjoyed the society of many gentlemen and “has gone too far”. Winterbourne was often amused, flattered but also perplexed by her bold and carefree behavior. He was bewildered both by her innocence – “Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him. Miss Miller looked extremely innocent”, and her flightiness – “He was inclined to think Miss Daisy was a flirt – a pretty American flirt.” To Daisy, Winterbourne was “horrid”, “stiff” on several incidents even though she liked his company and asked him to go to the castle with her in Switzerland and later with her family to Italy. She teased him and complained he should be more direct and gentleman-like, just as her other intimate Italian friend.

The cultural clash and social intersection are demonstrated in an earlier American history in a poem by Phillis Wheatley: On Being Brought from Africa to America. In comparison with Daisy Miller, Wheatley’s poem underlines the racial gap and the spiritual integration. Being snatched from her motherland Africa as a slave, then raised and educated in a white family and converted into Christianity, Wheatley was caught in the two worlds: master vs slave, “Pagan” land vs God’s country, black “sable race” vs white Christian. Ironically and poignantly, she applied her adopted religion, the dominant one, to plead to her readers, the dominant race, that God is a universal savior and his mercy and redemption should be available to all regardless of the color of skin.

Work Cited

James, Henry. DAISY MILLER: A STUDY. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Daisy Miller: a Study

Wheatley, Phillis. On Being Brought from Africa to America. Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45465/on-being-brought-from-africa-to-america. Accessed 17 Oct 2018.