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Henry James' Daisy Miller: The Tragedy of the Autonomous Self

I would like us to consider how many of the problems of the modern self, a self without God (either explicitly or functionally), are enacted in the behavior of Daisy, Winterbourne, and the American ex-patriate community in Rome. While James' Daisy Miller is written in the middle of the realist period in literature, it is also part of the larger sweep of Modernism that can said to have begun even as early as the Enlightenment, but certainly by the influx of nineteenth-century changes in science, psychology, economics, and politics. We can contextualize the issue of the modern self in three ways--by looking at 'the world' as a denial of the supernatural or God-given; by examining the resulting dilemma of the modern self; and by recognizing the assumptions that exist behind western individuality.

1) The "World" as Sinful Construction

Craig M. Gay writes:

If we are 'conservative,' we have probably tended to think of the 'the world'--and hence 'worldliness'--in terms of temptations to various kinds of dissipation and to personal, and particularly sexual, immorality.  If we are 'liberal' in disposition, we have perhaps conceived of the 'world' in terms of socio-economic systems, and 'worldliness' as complicity in these evils.  Both views are certainly correct.  Personal immorality and socio-political injustices are indeed worldly evils to be condemned and avoided.  But what if it can be shown that both the 'conservative' and the 'liberal' positions, while partly correct, actually miss the heart of the matter?  What if the essence of 'the world'--and hence 'worldliness'--is not personal immorality and/or social injustice as such, but is instead an interpretation of reality that essentially excludes the reality of God from the business of life?

[. . . 'T]he world' is a human construction.  It represents a kind of false order that we construct for ourselves in the place of God's good creation.   Indeed, the cosmos is something we must continually reconstruct and maintain for ourselves in the face of threats posed to its unreal continuities and coherences by the real reality of created order and particularly by the reality of creation's Creator. [. . . We act as if ] the sorts of things we are able to observe in the ordinary course of events circumscribe the boundaries of the possible.  Our construction of 'the world,' in other words, is often premised upon the assumption that we are capable of comprehending reality in its totality, that we are capable of rendering it stable and predictable, and that we are capable-at least in principle--of making reality work for us. [. . .] Indeed, it is the very nature of 'the world' to prevent us from recognizing the existence of anything beyond sensible and temporal regularities.
[. . .] For once we have reduced reality to a 'world' of things and objects, which is the end-product of this convenient fiction, we can begin to exert our will over reality, and we can begin to act 'as gods' within. (5-7)

According to Gay, the world (or cosmos to invoke the New Testament term) is the way in which human beings seek to understand the world without God as its source and lord.  In modern times, we live our daily lives, make our economic, political, and many times even ethical decisions, and create and experience culture without considering God.  At best, we have privatized our spiritual lives in such a way that spirituality is reduced to something personal and domestic.

2) Conditions of the Modern Self:

  • The modern self assumes an autonomy that seeks to reject the claims of authority, tradition, or community.
  • The modern self searches for personal therapy that only results in the subjective experience of well-being.
  • The true, the good, and the beautiful are undiscoverable, so they are judged as not applicable to human experience.
  • The modern self has moved from an emphasis on redemption of character to liberation from social inhibitions.
  • Identity is self-constructed through self-consumption of products of desire.
  • Such claims about identity and truth call for a technical mastery of the environment, as well as a division between the public and private spheres of reality.

Adapted from Gay, Craig M. The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live As If God Doesn't Exist. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

3) Peter Berger's Six Propositions on The Nature of Western Individuality

Thus, with the above in mind, this is how most of Western society understands human identity:

  1. The uniqueness of the individual represents his or her essential reality.
  2. Individuals are or ought to be free.
  3. Individuals are responsible for their own actions, but only for their own actions.
  4. An individual's subjective experience of the world is "real" by definition.
  5. Individuals possess certain rights over and against collectives.
  6. Individuals are ultimately responsible for creating themselves.

Berger, Peter L. "Western Individuality: Liberation and Loneliness," Partisan Review 52 (1985).

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The image above is of Torsten Renqvist's 1971 Ordet.  It is an image of Christ.   I have chosen to include it here because it represents a very Romantic notion of Christ, one who is a self-actualized hero.  Christ projects himself by force of will outside of his circumstances.  By the power of his imagination he overcomes the wounding he receives in his hands.  Renqvist's vision of Christ is essentially a modernist one, in which creed and religion have been reduced to a therapeutic desire for internal expression.  In this sense, Ordet is emblematic of the false solutions that the modern self is left with.
James' Daisy Miller is concerned with a number of issues revolving around the expectations of societies (European and American), the mores of family, social set, and romance, as well as the search for acceptability within these spheres of influence.   James in his essay "The Art of Fiction" argues that "a novel is a personal and direct impression of life," but it is one that seeks to produce what the author regards as a realistic portrait of life, both good and evil.  The novel is particularly powerful for its ability to dramatize consciousness.  Likewise, incidents follow from character; the plot results from the inclination of characters.  In James' mind, it is a mistake to separate one from the other. Consider, as you work through the questions below, how James conceives of his characters' dilemmas.  What is he saying about the nature of the world and individuals?  Is he correct?


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  1. How does Daisy seek to ignore the claims of authority on her life?  Family? Community? Custom? Friendship?
  2. How does she seek to define herself?  What is she seeking?   How does she define and understand her search for well-being?
  3. What inhibitions is she wishing to free herself from?  Does she?
  4. In what ways does she deny that she has a responsibility either for her own actions or for those of others?
  5. Is Winterbourne entirely subject to the claims of tradition, authority, and custom on his actions?
  6. Is Winterbourne seeking to construct his identity?  Are his observations of Daisy accurate? Does he understand her? 
  7. Is he correct to claim that Daisy and her mother "have not yet risen to that stage of--what shall I call it?--of culture"?   What are his motives?
  8. Is Mrs. Costello correct in claiming that "a man may know every one.  Men are welcome to the privilege"?
  9. What guides the judgments of the American ex-patriate community in Rome?  Are they wise judgments?  Are Mrs. Walker's motives ones of compassion?
  10. What does Daisy mean when she remarks, "Why, it was Mr. Winterbourne!  He saw me--and he cuts me!"?
Another way to frame the issue at stake in questions 7-9 is to consider where the final source for right and wrong is located.   Christians believe that this is God.  Yet even if you believe in absolutes, you still have to consider the question of how absolutes work themselves out in different cultures.  Daisy's behavior is understood one way in America and another in Europe.   At home, she would not be judged a loose girl, but in Rome she is.  Even if you believe that her intentions are good (i.e., she is essentially innocent throughout the story), the question still remains whether the individual's right to be "true" to herself should take precedent over the judgments and mores of another culture.   How should one adjudicate between the individual's search for freedom and self-identity and the claims of the community or culture to judge what behavior is loose?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding