Daisy Miller Through the Psychoanalysis of the Culture of Emotion

Daisy Miller Through the Psychoanalysis of the Culture of Emotion

A Story by Courtney

Do you ever wonder why Americans put such value on happiness?


Daisy Miller through the Psychoanalysis of the Culture of Emotion

“His conclusions were founded on the psychology of the individual,

but it was Freud more than anyone else who taught us that

every aspect of the individual is really a social one.” (Jones, 1957)


            The book Daisy Miller by Henry James shows a particular contrast between the American women Daisy and the English and Italian cultures, with which she is unfamiliar. If it is understood that Daisy herself is a product of the American culture from which she came, it can also be understood that the people with whom she interacts are also a product of their own cultures. In this way, a conflict of cultural views and values are illustrated on almost every page of the book.

            Through Daisy Miller and her little brother, Randolph, the novella introduces cheerfulness as an important value of American culture in its first pages. Winterbourne notes that Daisy is “extremely animated” (James, 24) and open; “Of her own tastes, habits, and intentions, Miss Miller was prepared to give the most definite, and, indeed, the most favorable account.” (James, 25) This cheerfulness has been documented as a cultural trait of Americans. “U.S. emotion culture upholds a standard of cheerfulness well-examined in studies of emotion management, etiquette, nonverbal communication, sociolinguistics, interpersonal and organizational communication, self-presentation, identity construction, and other types of culture and communication research.” (Kotchemidova) The contrast of this Americanized culture with the strict European culture revolves around that crucial trait of cheerfulness and is strengthened throughout the story that Winterbourne narrates of Daisy, even as it distinguishes her individuality among foreign cultural standards.

            The value of cheerfulness in American culture can be theorized by the historical fact that America, as a younger civilization, never had the feudal hierarchy that distinguished historical European countries. This lack of hierarchy has created a higher social friction and competition among the lower and middle class workers. (Kotchemidova) This sort of social competition has its roots in consumerism.

When cheerfulness is viewed as a direct product of the consumer mentality in America, it shows how deeply ingrained consumerism itself is in American culture. It becomes an unspoken agreement between Americans to play up things to a positive beat and avoid topics that might be viewed as negative. “Sociolinguists have uncovered ‘‘cheerful speech routines’’ unique to Anglo- American culture.” (Kotchemidova) This can be linked to the “consumer happiness theory” that governs the American economy �" a happy person using a product; or in the case of American society, a productive business using happy people. On page 17 of the book, in a response to Winterbourne’s description of his aunt, Daisy proclaims, “I think that’s a lovely description, headache and all!” Her reaction is very typically American, displaying a tendency to speak and act in a positive manner that is expressly typical of her culture. As Kotchemidova notes, “The historiography of emotions documents a growing use of cheerfulness in American society. The value of good cheer rose around the mid-18th century in relation to burgeoning individualism and the ethic of self-help. Keeping in good spirits began to suggest an active personality fully in control of its life.” In this way, workers in America were expected to define themselves socially as mentally stable, cheerful people who were well in control of their lives and of their emotions, who would be able to happily serve customers.

Daisy gains the social attention she craves through the people most willing to offer it to her, namely Giovanelli. “But she was evidently very much interested in Giovanelli. She looked at him whenever he spoke; she was perpetually telling him to do this and to do that; she was constantly ‘chaffing’ and abusing him.” (James, 47) In this way, the pressure to be cheerful also comes with the desire to be well-liked and distinguished as an individual. A person’s value in the workforce became based on their ability to get along with others and to contribute to a positive atmosphere, a value which is given by others.

            Because European society is so complex and because its “modern society assumes that all people’s social behavior is the result of real psychological altruism, it tightens moral standards beyond a level attainable by most of its members.” (Appel) Thus, if the culturally accepted behavior of such a complex society as England’s is beyond what most of its members can attain, it is only natural that someone who is unfamiliar with it would break many of its rules. It would be natural for someone who values individualism, thrown into such an unfamiliar and restricted society, would chafe at its limitations and strive to go beyond them in search of personal freedom and happiness.

            To observe the cultural cheerfulness in an individual, particularly an individual blundering heedlessly through social standards, such cheerfulness comes across as childish and lacking in intelligence to an observer. On page 51, Winterbourne wonders “whether Daisy’s defiance came from the consciousness of innocence, or from her being, essentially, a young person of the reckless class.” Daisy appeared to neither heed nor care what the social standards were �" it was obvious that she did not know them, and equally obvious that she saw no reason to learn and adhere to them. This sort of behavior belies the innocence and ignorance of Americans in general as to what social rejection is and their unfamiliarity with its repercussions. Again, this raises questions as to the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans, tying into the historical hierarchal values therein.

As Kotchemidova notes, “After the Revolution, U.S. etiquette replaced the obsequious European manners with egalitarian friendliness and niceness. The new ideological framework of free labor in capitalism linked good humor to material comfort and personal merit.” In this way, it can be understood that American society would seem considerably more free and innocent than the complex and sophisticated social organization of European societies, and thus be rejected for not conforming to difficult standards. Supporting this theory is Freud’s statement that, "liberty has undergone restrictions through the evolution of civilization, and justice demands that these restrictions should apply to all. The desire for freedom that makes itself felt in a human community may be a revolt against some existing injustice… it may also have its origin in the primitive roots of the personality, still unfettered by civilizing influence, and so become a source of antagonism to culture. Thus a cry for freedom is directed either against particular forms or demands of culture or else against the culture itself.” (James, 22)

Following this critical cultural difference are the theories and analysis of Sigmund Freud, who states that “the liberty of the individual is not a benefit of culture.” (Freud). Winterbourne narrates this harsh reality when Daisy Miller, with her foreign American free-spiritedness is rejected by his English companions. Winterbourne insists that Daisy Miller is merely “innocent,” (James 26, 38), “uncultivated” (James 41) and “only a pretty American flirt.” (James 10). He fails to see that those are exactly the reasons why she must be rejected by the cultivated ladies with whom he associates.

In order to get its population to adhere to such a strict set of rules that exist in the sophisticated English culture, there must be repercussions to behaviors seen as improper, indecent, or otherwise unacceptable by the façade of the social organization. Mrs. Walker complains to Winterbourne on page 40 that Daisy had been doing “Everything that is not done here. Flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o’clock at night.” Winterbourne’s response on page 41 was that “the poor girl’s only fault is that she is very uncultivated.” He was right, but at the same time, such a cultivated society cannot accept an individual who threatens its values by refusing to accept the norms that structure it.

The only defense is to socially ostracize the individual who fails to live up to the cultural social standard. On page 46, Winterbourne narrates the event which consists of the one empowerment that such a strict society has in order to extract individuals that present themselves as a threat to their own values: “When Daisy came to take leave of Mrs. Walker, this lady conscientiously repaired the weakness of which she had been guilty at the moment of the young girl’s arrival. She turned her back straight upon Miss Miller, and left her to depart with what grace she might.” By rejection, a complex society maintains its importance in the lives of those who are a part of it. “One can say that individuals behave as group members as a result of the ambivalent identification libidinal bonds with the leader and with other members, thereby producing a group ego ideal.” (Appel) In this way, society offers a place among its members for those prudent enough and cautious enough to maintain its ideals. For those who do not maintain its ideals, it requires that its members reject the individual in order for the preservation of the social ideal.

Like many Americans, Daisy is judged to be unsophisticated and innocent, childish and crude by Winterbourne’s highly cultured acquaintances. She prefers to keep the company of Giovanni and other “mysterious Italians”, who seemed to truly like her, rather than keep to the “proper” company that doesn’t bother hiding the fact that they didn’t particularly like her. Instead of seeing it as a rejection of their treatment of her, the women of the cultured society simply viewed it as another cultural indiscretion. For someone who is not familiar with these social taboos and customs, then it would only make sense that they turn from such a complicated and unaccepting social circle into another, more accepting circle of companions.

Though logical on the part of Daisy Miller, her turning to Giovanelli and other Italian men for companionship only served to aggravate her social situation with Winterbourne’s English acquaintances. This aggravation was twofold in the fact that it was unusual for either English or Italian cultures for women to behave so freely, and served to finalize Daisy’s ostracization in the European society in Rome. “The Italian culture, which is Southern European, is a high-contact culture, as Italians are more likely to be comfortable with touching than people in low-contact cultures, like Americans.” (Dibrase) This kind of close social contact could only be interpreted as erotic and sexual by a society that is considered low-contact, or those who have much larger social and physical boundaries. As Freud states, “the tendency of culture to set restrictions upon sexual life is no less evident than its other aim of widening its sphere of operations… Further limitations are laid on it by taboos, laws, and customs… We have seen that culture obeys the laws of psychological economic necessity in making the restrictions, for it obtains a great part of the mental energy it needs by subtracting it from sexuality.” (Freud, p. 26-27) In this way, the more sexually inhibited a culture is, the greater the mental energy of its members towards suppressing sexual desires in others. With a high-contact culture like Italy, sexuality is less inhibited, and social norms in touching behavior go far beyond the bounds of what the English would consider proper for acquaintances and into the realm of sexual intimacy.

It was not only the English upper class that found Daisy’s free American behavior against social norms, but also the Italians. On page 44, Daisy was talking to Mr. Winterbourne about Mrs. Walker �" “did you ever hear anything so cool as Mrs. Walker’s wanting me to get into her carriage and drop poor Mr. Giovanelli, and under the pretext that it was proper? People have different ideas! It would have been most unkind; he had been talking about that walk for ten days.” Mr. Winterbourne stiffly tells her, “He should not have talked about it at all; he would never have proposed to a young lady of this country to walk about the streets with him.” Daisy is perplexed at this; “About the streets?” Where then, would he have proposed her to walk? The Pincio is not the streets, either. The young ladies of this country have a dreadfully poky time of it, so far as I can learn; I don’t see why I should change my habits for them.” Mr. Winterbourne was quite right in pointing out that Giovanelli would not have asked a young Italian women to walk with him as he proposed with Daisy. “One culture with historically defined gender roles is Italy. Italian society is built on a deep division of gender roles. In the past, women in Italy were seen as inferior to men and responsible for running the household and caring for others.” (Dibrase). Instead of pondering why such things were not done, Daisy is simply amazed that they shouldn’t be done. She hears the information and dismisses it as not pertaining personally to her.

This kind of cultural ethno-centricity is a typical American trait. The culture is so highly individualized as a group that they seem to expect things to adapt to them rather than realizing they should be the ones adapting. “The essence of it lies in the circumstance that the members of the community have restricted their possibilities of gratification, whereas the individual recognized no such restrictions. The first requisite of culture, therefore, is justice �" that is, the assurance that a law once made will not be broken in favor of one individual. This implies nothing about the ethical value of any such law.” (Freud) Despite the cost to individual freedom, culture demands justice �" that all individuals be judged equally, allowing for no leniency no matter how much the individual in the circumstance may demand it.

Daisy Miller narrates the innocent, cheerful, and informal manner typical of Americans in conflict with complex European societies. As American culture places a high value on cheerfulness and likeability as distinguishing individuality, it is a stark contrast to the rigid formality of English society. Inevitably, this causes a conflict which results in the ostracization of the unsuspecting American in cultured international societies.











Appel, S. "Freud on Civilization." Human Relations June 1995: 625-646. Article.

Dibrase, Rosemary and Gunnoe, Jamie. "Gender and Cultural Differences in Touching Behavior." The Journal of Social Psychology 2004: 49-62. Article.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and It's Discontents. Digireads.com Publishing, n.d. Book.

James, Henry. Daisy Miller. Dover Publications, 1995. Book .

Kotchemidova, Christina. "Emotion Culture and Cognitive Constructions of Reality." Communication Quarterly (2010): 207-234. Article.


© 2015 Courtney

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Interesting analysis! Daisy Miller is one of my favourite Henry James books.

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Added on April 14, 2015
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Platteville, WI

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A Story by Courtney