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209 NOTES UNAMBIGUOUS AMBIGUITY: THE INTERNATIONAL THEME OF DAISY MILLER Paul Lukacs Loyola College Daisy Miller, although widely taught and widely read, is usually dismissed by scholars and critics as a minor work. This cannot be because of its size, as the same commentators inevitably prize the equally concise Turn of the Screw. Nor can it be because of its theme. First published in 1878, this small novel stands as what Leon Edel calls "the prototype" of the international theme that Henry James explored in longer, more critically admired novels such as The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904).1 Yet, while the theme suggests affinities with James' more celebrated fiction, its presentation suggests an important difference; and clearly this difference is what accounts for the critical dismissal of the novel. When compared to those other novels, both the form and content of Daisy Miller seem straightforward and accessible . Unlike James' later experiments with narrative point of view, here it is always clear what the observing consciousness is thinking. So too, here the style is clear and direct, and there is little doubt about what happens or even about why it happens. In short, Daisy Miller is unlike James' more celebrated novels because it seems unambiguous, and precisely because it seems unambiguous, critics tend to view it as little more than light entertainment , in Edel's words, "the equivalent of a pencil sketch on an artist's pad."2 Ambiguity, or at least ambiguity of a certain type, is widely considered the hallmark of James' mature style, with some critics going so far as to argue that his use of it amounts to a veritable revolution in the history of the novel. Yet "ambiguity" is itself something of an ambiguous term, and these critics disagree on exactly what type of ambiguity James should be credited with employing. Some consider it primarily stylistic, while others see it as an aspect of narration. Still others view it as a function of plot, since "what happens" in a James novel, especially a novel of his major phase, happens within a character's consciousness moreso than within the social world. Dorothea Krook offers a synthesis of these views when, referring specifically to The Golden Bowl, she writes: [James presents] his story at every point through the consciousness of a single interpreter, so that everything that happens is seen from that interpreter's point of view and no other. . . . [He arranges] the dialogues and interior monologues [so] that they with perfect self-consistency yield 210Noies two distinct and, in the context, contradictory meanings, one confirming the validity of the interpreter's point of view, the other putting it in doubt.3 Scholars clearly do not consider Daisy Miller to be ambiguous in this sense. For one, James' style was much more direct in 1878 than in 1904. For another, since the action of the novel is essentially social, "what happens" has little to do with an interpreter's point of view. And finally, while the story is filtered through a character's consciousness, that character's interpretation is never obscure. Put simply, Frederick Winterbourne's opinion of Miss Daisy Miller changes over the course of her story, but what occasions the change always seems perfectly clear. Yet the meaning of such change is not at all clear. At the end of the novel Daisy's Italian companion, Giovanelli, tells Winterbourne that "she was the most beautiful young lady I ever saw . . . [and] the most innocent ." This occasions Winterbourne's final change of heart, so confusing him that he is left staring speechlessly at her newly dug grave, a "raw protuberance among the April daisies" (p. 115).4 What happens here is perfectly clear; even why it happens is clear enough. But what remains unclear all throughout the novel is the meaning of such happenings. For if Daisy Miller is not ambiguous in the ways that The Golden Bowl or The Ambassadors are, it nonetheless is far from straight-forward. Indeed, judging from popular rather than critical reaction, it may well be the least straightforward of all of James' novels. Beginning with its first publication, Daisy Miller always has...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 209-216
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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