Evaluating James’s Use of Charm in Daisy Miller

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The word charming is used constantly throughout Henry James’s Daisy Miller. According to literary critic Adrian Poole, the world would be boring and sad without charm because there would be no possibility of romance. Poole is undoubtedly correct when he concludes, “At once magician and realist, James reminds us that charm is one of the world’s great gifts, even if it is the emblem of a complex fate, or even fatality” (132). Therefore, James realistically uses charm in his stories to provide complex representation of characters.

The Dual Purpose of Charm

In James’s story, charm serves dual purpose. Charm entices yet lulls one into a false sense of security. Charm may seem positive but is actually negative. Charm requires two individuals because there is the person who is charming and the other person who is to be charmed. Poole briefly admits that when readers study James’s writing, they must “submit to charm and beware” (132). He emphasizes on the negative influence of Daisy’s charm in his essay; yet, by focusing on Daisy Miller rather than on Frederick Winterbourne, Poole is lured into Winterbourne’s web of charm, falling for James’s narrative trap. Daisy is not the charmer. It is Winterbourne who is the scheming charmer who manipulates women.

Henry James (image from here)

Austen Influences James’s Writing

Henry James undoubtedly learned from Jane Austen that words serve multiple purposes, and people use words to their advantage. The word charming “may seem to be what Jane Austen calls a ‘nothing-meaning’ term, like ‘elegantly dressed, and very pleasing’” (Poole 116). For example, in Emma, Austen writes about Harriet absentmindedly using the word charming. This usage contrasts how Austen makes Emma cautious of charm, since “[i]t takes two, after all, to charm and be charmed” (117). Austen uses charm to contrast characterization in Emma, while James uses the word as a diversion in Daisy Miller.

Jane Austen (image from here)

Winterbourne Charms Daisy

Frederick Winterbourne uses the word charming repeatedly and derogatorily to describe the female protagonist named Daisy Miller. Poole argues, “[E]very time we call someone charming, we are trying to escape from the menace and promise of succumbing to charm, being truly charmed” (118). For Poole, Winterbourne uses the word repeatedly to try to avoid being seduced by Daisy’s charm; however, Winterbourne’s use of charm is a red herring.

Winterbourne constantly points his finger at Daisy by labeling her as charming. Therefore, he accuses Daisy as the seducer and distracts readers from his scheme to actually seduce her. When the readers are first introduced to Winterbourne, he is “looking about him, rather idly, at some of the graceful objects,” meaning women, because “in whatever fashion [Winterbourne] looked at things, they must have seemed to him charming” (James 4). From the very beginning, readers see that Winterbourne is already labeling women, whom he is checking out, as charming. This observation occurs even before Winterbourne meets Daisy. Winterbourne says Daisy is “a flirt—a pretty American flirt” (James 12), yet he repeatedly comments whether or not she blushes. Daisy flirts but is not looking for a sexual rendezvous, whereas Winterbourne is. For example, when Daisy and Winterbourne were going to the Castle of Chillon, he “could have believed he was going to elope with her” (James 26). The trip ends, and Winterbourne is disappointed that nothing sexual happens between the two of them. There is a difference between a charmer and a flirt: Winterbourne is the exploitive charmer, Daisy the innocent flirt.

Winterbourne & Daisy (image from here)

Winterbourne Charms His Aunt

Daisy is not the only character charmed by Winterbourne. The readers see how Winterbourne is socially smooth with his aunt, Mrs. Costello. Poole wonders how well humans are able to distinguish “between innocence and experience” and “between the cat-like social sense of ‘charm’ and the panther-like deep magical one. This is what bewilders Winterbourne about Daisy Miller” (122). The readers should not be bewildered about how Daisy interacts with Winterbourne; however, the reader should be aware about Winterbourne and his interactions with various female characters in the story.

The readers can see how Winterbourne uses charm to manipulate his aunt and to degrade Daisy. For example, Winterbourne and his aunt talk one Sunday afternoon after going to St. Peter’s in Rome. In sharp contrast to the religious setting, the aunt proceeds to gossip uncharitably about Daisy and Mr. Giovanelli, after seeing the pair together earlier that day. Winterbourne does not defend Daisy, the girl he supposedly cares about; instead, Winterbourne contributes to the gossip by asking questions (“Do you call it an intrigue . . . an affair that goes on with such peculiar publicity?” [James 50]). Winterbourne even offers comments (“They are certainly very intimate” [James 50]). Because Winterbourne contributes to the very unchristian-like gossip, this charmer becomes two-faced. One victim of Winterbourne’s façade is Daisy, but the other victim is his aunt. Neither the reader nor the female characters knows whom Winterbourne is being sincere to. In fact, Winterbourne is probably being disingenuous to both women, serving his own purposes whenever the situation is best for him.

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Winterbourne Fails to Charm

Because Winterbourne tries to be charming to his lover and Daisy, Winterbourne’s charm towards both of them comes to a crashing end. When Mrs. Walker and Winterbourne are in the carriage together, Mrs. Walker orders Daisy to get in the carriage; despite what Mrs. Walker says, Daisy does not want to. To please Mrs. Walker, Winterbourne tells Daisy, “I think you should get into the carriage” (42), under the pretense of protecting Daisy’s reputation while also supporting his lover. However, if Winterbourne—rather than Giovanelli—had been walking with Daisy, Winterbourne would walk with her instead of telling her to do the polite thing of obeying Mrs. Walker. Once again, Winterbourne does not stand up for Daisy, revealing to the readers his hypocritical charm. His sole purpose is to appear charming—towards both his lover and the woman he desires. Because this scene ends with Daisy walking away and his lover being upset, we can see that supposed charm does not always succeed.

In the carriage (image from here)


James evacuates the word charming. As the readers discover how the word charming becomes hollow through the story, the readers also discover how hollow Winterbourne is, as well. Poole argues, “As James grows older his ‘charmers’, both male and female, become more formidable, harder to read, [and] more adroit at masking their intentions” (125). Even though Daisy Miller is a relatively early writing in James’s career, Poole appears to have missed the point that Winterbourne is quite formidable. Winterbourne, who charms Daisy, his aunt, and his lover, masks his intensions charmingly with these three women. In this story, the readers see Winterbourne’s hollow charm because of his interactions with women. As readers, we must be aware of other Winterbournes—in literature and in life.

Works Cited

  • James, Henry. Daisy Miller: A Study. The Portable Henry James. Ed. John Auchard. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.
  • Poole, Adrian. “Henry James and Charm.” Essays in Criticism 61.2 (2011): 115–136. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.

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