A Look at the Life and Novels of Henry James Jr.

Categories: Literature

On April 15, 1983 Henry James Jr. was born into the prominent and eccentric James Family. His father, Henry James Senior was a noted philosopher and his considered one of the most brilliant thinkers of the age. His brother William was to become one of the most important figures in the field of psychology. The wealthy James family traveled frequently providing Henry with a haphazard education. His formal education however, was no where near as important as the education that he received from traveling trough Europe and living on the ‘continent, which proved to be the driving inspiration behind his work.

Although James’ life appeared to be idyllic James himself was troubled. Compared to his brother he was frail and slight in frame and statute and as a result was mocked by other boys his age. As a result James turned away from his peers and spent a lot of time with his family members, especially the women (Bell). Then I in 1860 while helping fight a stable fire James was horribly injured.

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Though the actual injury itself remains a mystery many speculate that it was the cause of his lifelong rejection of intimate relationships. Combined with his already introverted personality, the injury contributed to the isolated environment that James surrounded himself in and forced him to find companionship in his writing.

At age 19, Henry James gave up schooling for good, deciding instead to become a writer. He began to publish his works and the tone for his works were set. James was highly influenced by another American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his work echoed with the same concerns “restraints that society places on the individual, and an interest in the way the past shapes the present” (Tanner 89).

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However, unlike Hawthorne, James was drawn to write about Europe.

Frequent trips to Europe soon convinced him to move there permanently which is considered one of the most important decisions of his career (Dupee 106). The American in Europe became a major theme in his writing.

Henry James was very prolific. His works include twenty novels, over one hundred tales, many plays, studies, criticisms, and travel impressions. He is considered a “writers writer,” and was highly regarded by those who could best appreciate his work. Although James moved in the social circles of the aristocratic nobility in Europe he was never actually a wealthy man. He lived off of his earnings as a writer and loathed to accept charity from anyone.

At the end of his life at the onset of the First World War he actively participated in the war relief effort until he suffered from severe health problems in 1916 (Tanner 95). When he dies his books were not very popular and it would take twenty years for his works to be rediscovered (Dupee 77).

Henry James had a profound effect on the intellectual world. His writings influenced the next generation of American writers including Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Katherine Anne Porter, Edith Warton, and Virginia Woolf.

James’ most popular tale, Daisy Miller was the first to earn Henry James the acclaim he deserved. Of all his works only The Turn of the Screw was as well known. Daisy Miller is the story of a young girl, Daisy Miller who is touring Europe with her mother and younger brother. While in Vevey at a Swiss Resort Daisy meets a handsome young American man, Frederick Winterbourne, who is visiting his wealthy Aunt Mrs. Costello. Winterbourne and Daisy become aquatinted and Winterbourne is immediately taken with Daisy. He has never met someone like her – she is flirtatious which is quite unorthodox and impetuous. Daisy does what she wants when she wants to without any regard for the customs that are strictly observed in European society. Daisy convinces Winterbourne to take her on an outing without a chaperone. This unheard of behavior doesn’t seem to bother Daisy’s mother, but completely shocks and outrages Mrs. Costello who refuses to meet Daisy – a low class American. The next day Winterbourne leaves for Geneva and Daisy is quite miffed that their time together came to an end so quickly. But, Winterbourne tells Daisy that he will meet with her again in Rome the next winter.

When Winterbourne finally arrives in Rome the next Winter he finds that Daisy has hardly been pinning away him, instead she has surrounded herself with a number of Italian gentlemen callers and seems to favor one, Mr. Giovanelli, in particular.

Daisy’s behavior in Rome echoes her behavior in Vevey the previous spring. And Winterbourne no longer finds her flirting as charming as it was when it was directed at him. Daisy’s conduct in Rome under the scrupulous eyes of the society their draws her much attention. One American, Mrs. Walker warns Winterbourne that Daisy is on the verge of ruining her reputation by traveling unchaperoned with Giovanelli. Winterbourne tries to warn Daisy but he is torn between seeing her behavior as oblivious innocence or outright immorality. When Daisy will not heed his advice he goes to her mother. But Mrs. Miller, who is engaged trying to watch her impertant younger son, sees Giovanelli as a nice gentleman and even speculates on a possible engagement.

Winterbourne is shocked at this news and he ends up confronting Daisy about it. She confirms then denies his accusations. Obviously trying to make him jealous. Her plan backfires and he makes his decision, Daisy is immoral. However, he can not let go of her that easily and while walking one night in Rome he comes across Daisy in the Colosseum with Giovanelli. Lingering concern prompts Winterbourne to warn Daisy that the Colosseum is a breeding ground for malaria and that Daisy should be careful. Giovanelli goes to fetch the carriage and Daisy and Winterbourne are alone. Daisy queries Winterbourne, wondering if he believed that she was engaged. He tells her that it doesn’t matter one way or another and that she should leave the Colosseum before she catches her death. Heartbroken and defeated Daisy tells Winterbourne that she cares not whether of not she catches the Roman fever or not. The Americans in Europe quickly learn of Daisy’s nocturnal escapades and she is once again the topic of unsavory conversation. The American flirt has tumbled over the edge of respectability and firmly ruined her reputation. As gossip about Daisy rages around Rome more follows. It seems that Daisy did in fact catch the Roman fever, malaria and she is deathly ill.

After hearing this news Winterbourne seeks to confirm the rumor and goes to see Daisy. Her brother tells him that it was all her nighttime excursions that caused her to become so ill. Winterbourne encounters Daisy’s mother. She tells him that Daisy is very ill, but she does pass along a message. Daisy wants Winterbourne to know that she was not engaged to Giovanelli. While Daisy is on her deathbed, Giovanelli realizes that Daisy must have cared for him and his opinion to pass along such a message.

Within a week Daisy is dead. At her funeral there are many people, including Giovanelli who had failed to visit her while she was sick. Winterbourne sees him and asks him why he took her to the Colosseum to begin with. He says that Daisy wanted to go and was the “most innocent” girl he had ever known. It is then that Winterbourne sees how he wronged Daisy, and how her outward appearance was so different from her reality. He had misjudged her as much as everyone else had. In closing, Winterbourne observes that he had “spent too long in Europe to understand American ways.”

At a time when an education the Continent was the norm for the wealthy families of the United States Daisy was the epitome of the differences between Americans and Europeans, with the creation of Daisy Miller, Henry James created the American girl.

At the very beginning of the novel it is obvious that Daisy is very different from the Europeans in Vevey. When Daisy meets Winterbourne for the first time he is extremely embarrassed at being presented to her in such an offhanded manor, thorough her brother. It was simply not done. Daisy however, “not in the least embarrassed herself,” (James 8). Daisy at once proves herself to be very different from her European counterparts. Winterbourne was “amused, perplexed and decidedly charmedHe had never heard a young girl express herself in just [that] way” (James 13). In Europe, the young ladies there would never had been so forward to speak to a gentleman which whom they were not acquainted. Daisy’s actions set her apart. Scholar Leslie Fieldler best expresses the unique quality that Daisy possess

“Daisy isthe prototype of all those young American female tourists who continue to baffle their continental lovers with an innocence not at all  impeached” (Springer 125).

Daisy was uniquely American. Where Europeans were addicted to customs and rules, Daisy was independent in action and thought. She did what she wished without worrying who would or wouldn’t approve.

When first published Daisy was the source of great controversy. There was not one person who read Daisy Miller and did not declare themselves for or against her. As William Dean Howells commented to James Russell Lowll in 1878, “Societydivided itself into Daisy Millerites and anti-Daisy Millerites,” (Barnett 86). Like the fictional characters in James story society was at odds over how to perceive Daisy. Was she a just a flirt or was she something more? Was her death meant as a lesson to warn young girls away from such indiscrete pursuits or was it merely supposed to show her as the tragic heroine. Even today the debate continues. Many believe that James started out with one intention and as he wrote his intentions changed. As Carol Ohmann observes in her essay “A Study of Changing Intention” Daisy Miller begins rather comical and ends tragically (Miller 34). This shift in tone is unconventional but mirror Winterbourne’s changing attitude toward her. It is difficult to present a clear-cut picture of Daisy if not even her creator is sure who she is.

However, whether or not Daisy is well liked. She still continues to be the epitome of the American girl. Her disregard for decorum when she visits the Colosseum at night with Giovanelli is another example of how extremely different she is from her European counterparts. When Daisy falls sick from her excursions many say it is deserving punishment for such a low class girl. However, it is only after her death that Winterbourne realizes how wrong he has been in judging her. Like everyone else he believed the worst about Daisy. When he says that he has lived too long among Europeans he characterizes them as judgmental and snobby. Daisy was exactly the opposite. Her friendly attitude to her servant, a source of great displeasure to Mrs. Costello is an example of how unjudgemental she was. She didn’t ignore his presence, but treated him as a member of the family and with respect. This behavior is what Mrs. Costello calls “low class” (James 22).

Throughout Daisy Miller Daisy displays the unconventional lack of respect for decorum that is unheard of in Europe. It is her typical independence and outspoken manner that earn her such a poor reputation, but make her so American. Daisy Miller is the typical American girl and has become one of the archetypal American characters.


  1.  Barnett, Louise K. “Jamesian Feminism: Women in Daisy Miller” Studies in Short Fiction 16 (1979): 281-87.
  2.  Bell, Millicent. Woman in the Jamesian Eye. Boston: University Press, 1989.
  3.  Bloom, Harold, ed. Henry James’s ‘Daisy Miller,’ ‘Turn of the Screw’ and Other Tales. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
  4.  Dupee, Frederick W. Henry James. New York: Sloane, 1951.
  5.  Edel, Leon ed. Henry James a Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, 1963 J.: Prentice Hall, 1963.
  6.  James, Henry. Daisy Miller. New York, NY: Tor Press, 1988.
  7.  Springer, Mary Doyle. A Rhetoric of Literary Character: Some Women of Henry James.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
  8.  Tanner, Tony. Henry James. Amherst University of Massachussets Press, 1985.

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A Look at the Life and Novels of Henry James Jr.. (2021, Sep 21). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-look-at-the-life-and-novels-of-henry-james-jr-essay

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