Wednesday, June 01, 2005

22. Daisy Miller and Washington Square

by Henry James

There are few things that I love with unabashed passion. Among them: the Beatles, U2, soda, and television. And books, of course, but that’s to be assumed by this blog’s existence. One other thing I love is when those things combine together to form an impenetrable force of pop culture, like, for example, the episode of Gilmore Girls when Lorelai makes Rory go on a trip to Europe with her grandmother in order to keep her away from the married Dean. “Say goodbye to Daisy Miller,” Rory says when she realizes what’s going on. I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but the book quickly went on the to-be-read list.

I tell you, that show is doing more to increase my literary intake than anything else. This is why I love it.

Daisy Miller is the story of a young American girl traveling in Europe with her family, who happens upon an older gentleman by the name of Mr. Winterbourne. Winterbourne, also an American and quite wealthy, is smitten with Daisy, as is Mr. Giovanelli, a poor Italian. The story follows Winterbourne’s observations of Daisy and her coquettish ways, something that gets her into a bit of trouble in Europe. Apparently, we Americans are more relaxed about women having a number of gentlemen friends. Daisy’s flirtatiousness gets the better of her in the end, when, against the wishes of all the other characters, she goes to a nighttime viewing of the Colosseum with Giovanelli and ends up gravely ill. Then she dies.

Daisy dies, yo! I gasped audibly when I read that because, way to keep females in their place, Mr. James. I know the story is a comparison of American and European values and how the two societies interact with each other, but dang. You didn’t have to go and kill the girl.

Washington Square is almost the complete opposite of Daisy Miler. Where Daisy is a vibrant, cocksure individual, Catherine Sloper is timid and nervous and entirely dependent on her father’s opinion of her. Unfortunately, Dr. Sloper’s opinion of his daughter is never laudatory, so Catherine spends much of her time trying to please the judgmental old man. When Catherine meets Morris Townsend and he proceeds to court her, something which has never happened to her before, she falls deeply in love with him and is only deterred by her father’s low estimation of the boy. Turns out that Morris has no money, whereas Catherine is party to decent sum left to her by her mother after her death, and will come into even more money upon Dr. Sloper’s death. The story is almost comedic in Dr. Sloper’s conniving ways to keep Catherine under his thumb and, because Catherine’s mind and heart are so malleable, he succeeds in keeping her a maiden for her entire life.

I’ll admit, I was hesitant to read Henry James at first. I’d always wanted to read The Wings of the Dove, but that’s a monster of a book and I can’t commit to that without some kind of reassurance. Daisy Miller and Washington Square proved to be a good introduction to James’s work, because I very much loved both of the stories. I may have found Daisy’s demise a bit extreme and Catherine’s total lack of a spine deplorable, but I loved reading the stories and actually couldn’t put the book down; I was always wanting to know how the characters would end up. How’s that for eighteenth century suspense? Mostly, I’m glad that I took the time to delve into James’s work, because I can’t wait to read more of it. He paints vivid portraits of his characters, bound to their situations in time and place, then makes them struggle to get out, and the result is a really engaging, thought-provoking read. I couldn’t ask for more.

I also get to understand the Gilmore Girls reference.


Anonymous literaryvamp said...

Ooooh yes. That's just one of the many reasons why I adore that show. It got me onto PG Wodehouse. I haven't read Daisy Miller yet, but I'll keep an eye out for it at the used bookstores.

9:01 PM  

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