The Equation of Illness as a Form of Immunity in Henry James' Daisy Miller

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Henry James was, after all, a physical man. Throughout his childhood and young adulthood, James was deeply affected by the drama of competing illnesses enacted in his family: William suffered from neurasthenia and amusia; Wilkinson was frightfully wounded in the Civil War; Alice struggled with recurring bouts of hysteria; Robertson was sunk deep into the alcoholism. Emerging from all these intimate experiences, James turns illness and death into powerful literary tools to highlight the psychological conflicts in his writing. Especially in his novella Daisy Miller, illness becomes a metaphor for the clashes between the American and European cultures. The story places several American characters in a foreign context where everything is unfamiliar; however, only a number of them face difficulties with their health. As suggested by Kristin Boudreau, Europe has the power to “inflict pain, visit ill, work disaster only upon those Americans who arrived… in the wrong spirit” (27). The “wrong spirit” is the elitist and restrictive mentality that everything in America is superior to that in Europe. For those characters resisting to integrate into the more conservative European practice, they become ill with symptoms that range from neurotic to fatal. Therefore, similar to the adverse side effects the body felt after rejecting a pathogenic bacteria, the physical distress experienced by the characters in Daisy Miller reflects their resistance to adapt in the European circle.

The nagging ailments that Mrs. Miller and Randolph suffered symbolize their rejection toward the strict, ritual-based European society. As vacationers, they have a hard time adjusting to the European customs and blame the new environment outright for their neurotic symptoms. The first sign of the subversive effect that Europe has on the inexperienced foreigner is presented by Randolph: “I haven’t got any teeth to hurt. They have all come out… It’s this old Europe. It’s the climate that makes them come out” (3). Even though losing teeth is a developmental milestone for children to become an adolescent, Randolph sees it as a trauma brought on by being in Europe. The restrictive standards of the European society force him to leave the naïvety, normalizing his irregular aging that has been distorted and thwarted by the immaturity of America. His dissatisfaction at everything in Europe, though intense, does not associate with deep anxiety and frustration as in other older travelers. He is only nine years old, too young to have unrealistic imaginations and hopes for Europe; as a result, he only experiences minor shock by the fact that Europe always falls short in comparison to America. Still, the longer he resides in Europe, the more conflicts he has developed under the hypocritical European culture, and thus the worse his neurotic symptoms, such as homesickness (7) and insomnia (19), has gotten.

Mrs. Miller, on the other hand, cannot speak bluntly for her discontent with Europe like Randolph, who uses outspoken criticism as a therapeutic release. She comes to Europe with special expectations as she “had heard so much about it” (30) but only finds every aspect of Europe disappointing. By stating “I think it’s this climate; it’s less bracing than Schenectady” (30), Mrs. Miller accuses the European environment as the culprit that worsens her dyspepsia and insomnia. Her comparison of Europe with Schenectady reveals her overall negative attitude toward European society. Apparently, her illnesses are psychosomatic, stemming from her anxiety to face the unfamiliar European society daily and her inability to behave within its standards. In order to keep minimum contacts with strange surroundings and avoid additional pain from the new experience, she turns her illnesses into an excuse to shun European society as much as possible. This is first evident through Daisy when she informs Winterbourne the reason she has not gone to the Château de Chillon: “my mother gave out. She suffers dreadfully from dyspepsia. She said she couldn’t go” (11). By labeling herself with dyspepsia, Mrs. Miller tucks herself in the hotel room to stay away from the judging eyes of the European populace. Illness, therefore, becomes a powerful tool for her to ward off any new clash between two cultures and issues she has never had to confront back in America.

Similar to Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Costello makes hypochondria a way of her life to eschew European society. Despite living in Europe for a long period of time, Mrs. Costello has neither integrated into European society nor made it adjust to her customs. She is known to suffer from severe headaches and always “shut up in her room, smelling camphor” (2). Headache is a problem of the mind and often has psychiatric comorbidity. The fact that she is smelling camphor, a painkiller, suggests that the discomfort Europe has inflicted upon her, both physically and mentally, has not yet passed. Early in the novel, Winterbourne describes “if [Mrs. Costello] were not so dreadfully liable to sick-headaches, she would probably have left a deeper impress upon her time” (13). Her headaches are a psychogenic response to her frustrations of the inequality. Since coming from the prominent social cycle in New York, she has the desire to also enter that in Europe. However, the oppressive patriarchal system in nineteenth-century Europe forces her back into the traditional women’s sexual role. Instead of actively fighting against the repression like Daisy Miller, Mrs. Costello succumbs and channels her energies into crafting her own prison cell within the walls of European society. To divorce herself from the societal confinements would mean an end to the civilized culture and to her way of life. Furthermore, Mrs. Costello utilizes her headaches as a face-saving tool to maintain her social “exclusiveness”. When she does not want to associate with people like the Millers, headaches become an excuse: “I am afraid those headaches will interfere” (17). Obviously, it is impossible for Mrs. Costello to have headaches daily or even hourly. Headaches are simply an adaptive symptom tailored to her advantage for avoiding any unpleasantness that may arise from the new encounter and for preserving her exclusive status from the defunct European society.

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In sharp contrast to the Millers and Mrs. Costello, American expatriates Frederick Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker hold the “right” spirit, embrace the rigid social codes, and abide by them. As long-time residents in Europe, both of them remain in good health throughout the story. Winterbourne, an American by birth, feels comfortable and maintains a great reputation while in Europe. He not only suggests European visitors to “go by the custom of the place” (45) but also follows the societal restrictions closely himself. For instance, when Daisy entices him to walk with her on the street of Rome, he is tempted but still acquiesces to Mrs. Walker’s command (40). Under the pressure of both worlds, he chooses Europe over America, demonstrating his thoroughly Europeanized status. Daisy’s comment, “of course you don’t dance, you are too stiff!” (44), after Winterbourne’s submission further shows the extent of his Europeanization. When a person is stiff, they are artificial and inflexible. By staying in Europe for too long, Winterbourne has been ossified by the old staid European order to become bound to tradition. Resembling Winterbourne, Mrs. Walker is a happy, healthy and socially successful American living abroad. After “studying European society” (43), she comes to know the rules, internalizes them, and then turns herself into the keeper of cultivation. When her attempts to ensnarl Daisy fail, Mrs. Walker claims “It’s her revenge for my having ventured to remonstrate with her. When she comes, I shall not speak to her” (43). Between her words, she has a clear desire to physically chastise Daisy for her impropriety. She views Daisy’s inappropriate behaviors as contagious, one that will eventually spread to her privileged societal sphere. Best described by Amanda D’Amore, Mrs. Walker’s intentional exclusion of Daisy’s presence is “a form of controlled selection”, aiming to increase “the thoroughly Europeanized American colonists abroad” (4-5). She, as a keeper of propriety, must select the groups of people, who can stick to the European restrictions and thrive in her circle. In order to protect herself from reproach, she utilizes cutting as a prophylactic to sanitize her social connection and to preserve her European cultural superiority. Therefore, complete integration into the European culture along with a positive attitude has saved Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker from both the minor discomfort and the fatal disease.

For Daisy Miller, Henry James paints a very different picture of her psychophysiological state than any other character. She neither struggles with a neurotic illness nor feels anxious when encountering the unfamiliarities in Europe. Instead, she thinks that “Europe was perfectly sweet” (9) and is delighted by its novelties. Comparing to her American compatriots who develop neurotic symptoms to shy away from direct confrontations with Europe, she is more intensively alive and capable of participating in the society without falling into its encapsulating trap. Daisy, as her name suggested, is in her springtime of life; she must carry her existence to the fullest and live naturally without constraints. The fact that this spring flower turns its blossom to face the sun denotes the life-loving quality in Daisy. She has always planned to stay healthy and even arrogantly declares her intention twice: “I don’t want to do anything that’s going to affect my health” (33) and “I never was sick, and I don’t mean to be!” (55).

Even though Daisy’s positive attitude towards Europe has allowed her to enjoy good health for a long time, she eventually contracts fatal malaria at the Roman Colosseum and dies near the end of the novel. Malaria – literally translates as “bad air” – is not a protective psychosomatic illness related to mental factors, but one that spreads via social interactions. Ohmann attributes Daisy’s inevitable downfall to her inability to understand “the idea that manners really matter to those who practice them” (6) and “her carelessness of the manners of restraint” (7). It is often proposed that Daisy’s blissful ignorance coupled with her complete disregard of societal restrictions comprise the reason for her exclusion by the American expatriates and her death. This assumption, however, undermines what is actually a unique capability, only possessed by Daisy, to completely neglect the societal protocol and not succumb to its pressure. When Mrs. Walker attempts to encircle Daisy within her carriage and within her standards of conduct, Daisy refuses to alter her behavior by claiming “if I didn’t walk, I should expire” (38). Walking, a gait of locomotion that can be performed by any autonomous individual, symbolizes the motion of life itself. Daisy is aware that walking with Mr. Giovanelli in the public is not proper etiquette for a young girl, but she still makes a conscientious decision to defy the code and establish her own protocol with which life without freedom to move under her own will equates death. Since ignorance is not what terminates Daisy’s life, I argue that it is the repeated indignities of “cutting” by the Europeanized Americans deteriorates her health as well as her freewheeling attitude. Mrs. Costello is the first one to ostracize Daisy from her social circle. She always condemns Daisy’s vulgarity and relegates her to the lower social class. When Daisy realizes that Mrs. Costello’s headache is just an excuse for not meeting her, Winterborne senses a “tremor in her voice” (17). Vocal tremor is the involuntary muscle movements in the throat that can occur when feeling anxious or shocked. From Winterbourne’s suspicion, his aunt’s denial to get acquainted with Daisy makes Daisy terribly hurt and has an impact on her physical condition. The next cutting episode occurs in the drawing-room when Mrs. Walker deliberately turns her back straight upon Daisy. The effect of this rejection on Daisy is shown through her “pale, grave face” (46), making Mrs. Walker complicit in Daisy’s compromised health. The midnight scene at the Roman Colosseum marks the final, fatal cut by Winterbourne. By exclaiming “[Winterbourne] saw me—and he cuts me dead!” (55), Daisy makes the relationship between the cut and her fate very clear. To “cut” a Daisy is to end the flower’s life. Winterbourne’s harsh cut, rather than guiding Daisy to develop consciousness, moves her toward despair and doubts about the inherent trust between humans. As a result of the sequential rejections by her American compatriots, Daisy’s emotional distress weakens her immune system, which not only makes her more predisposed to the infection but also gives her a rapid death in one week (57).

Daisy’s death has both a passive and willful nature. She dies as much from the cutting by her American compatriots as from her intent to flout the European custom. Namely, if she does not resolve to visit the Colosseum, the “nest of malaria” (55), with Mr. Giovanelli at an unhealthy hour, she will not fall ill and die. Her active role in choosing self-destructive suicide is also evident when both Randolph (33) and Winterbourne ask her to take “Eugenio’s pills”, she declares “I don’t care… whether I have Roman fever or not!” (65). Presumably, Eugenio’s pills are the quinine that can be used as either the malaria prophylaxis or the remedy. Daisy’s contraction of malaria implies that she disregards the advice from Randolph and Winterbourne to take the prophylactic quinine before and after going to the Colosseum. One interesting way to interpret her careless attitude is that Daisy brings on her own illness and death, either as a means to escape from her paralyzing condition or as a protest to the inhuman European society.

With the trope of illness and death in Daisy Miller, Henry James dramatizes his response to whether illness creates immunity or emerges from lack of it. He connects the relation of physical health to the attitude towards an unfamiliar culture. Americans like the Millers and Mrs. Costello remain in the “wrong spirit”, rendering them neurotic symptoms to prevent significant contacts with the European society. In contrast, Mrs. Walker and Winterbourne, who live by the expected standards, stay healthy and thrive on the foreign soil. Daisy’s tragic death at the end further transforms the story into a societal eugenics game. Due to her insistence on maintaining herself and confronting the societal restrictions directly, she is deemed as a threat to the “civilized” European society and must be eliminated to preserve only the fittest offspring. Death, therefore, is the ultimate solution to literally quash the clash between two cultures.

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