Death by Society
In Henry James’ novella Daisy Miller: A Study we meet a flirtatious young woman who ultimately dies of malaria. Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening features a liberated woman who, in the end, drowns herself. Both stories are a protest against culture (familial and societal), and try to show its negative influences on individuals, whether they are explicitly rejecting culture or innocently doing so. The authors use death as a novelistic technique to underscore and emphasize their points. The novels are similar in that they share the central theme of entrapment; the difference lies in how that theme is approached. James uses the supporting theme of innocence versus guilt to develop the overall message, while Chopin employs symbolism. And while both tales ring down the curtain with a certain ambiguity, the authors provide subtle clues along the way to help us better grasp the characters.
One of the themes in Daisy Miller is innocence versus guilt. When Winterbourne first sees Daisy, for example, his initial reaction is, “How pretty they are!” (282) She is lovely, but Winterbourne’s choice of the plural pronoun—as opposed to the expected singular phrase, “How pretty she is”—indicates that he has already classified Miss Miller into a group. The narrator twice says that Winterbourne considers her a “pretty American girl” (282). At this point, Winterbourne is basing his judgment on physical appearance. He does not realize it at the time, or perhaps ever, but his initial categorization permanently skews the way in which he considers Daisy. For the duration of the story, Winterbourne constantly tries to further analyze and ‘decipher’ Daisy, but he never quite manages to understand her uniquely puzzling personality. This is because of his first classification of Daisy. He has already formed an opinion on her as the typical “American girl,” unconsciously associating her with that group’s standard appearance and behavior.
Alas, since Winterbourne’s suppositions about Daisy are based on stereotypes, he never comprehends the truth about her. When he is still becoming acquainted with her, he thinks she looks “extremely innocent” (286), yet probably “a flirt—a pretty American flirt.” “Innocent” is used throughout the story, albeit in different denotations; Winterbourne’s usage here implies a sort of ignorance on Daisy’s part, as in the art of conversation.
In Chapter 2, Winterbourne’s aunt warns him of associating with Daisy: “You will be sure to make some great mistake. You are too innocent” (289). Mrs. Costello uses “innocent” to mean “naïve,” implying that she does not trust Daisy, and that she may be less harmless than she appears. Winterbourne has, and will continue, to settle on a similarly suspicious mindset about the girl’s motives. In response to his aunt, he replies, “I am not so innocent,” suggesting that he has done no wrong, perhaps in the sense that he is not so easily fooled.
The topic of innocence resurfaces in Chapter 4, when Daisy is out with Giovanelli. As they walk about the Colosseum, Winterbourne happens to pass by and notice them there. “It was as if a sudden illumination had been flashed upon the ambiguity of Daisy’s behavior and the puzzle had become easy to read,” the narrator says (316). Winterbourne, it is implied, thinks he finally understands who Daisy really is. “Angry with himself” for having wasted his time on her, he decides she is not worth saving, much less caring about any more.
Compare this with a preceding paragraph in which Daisy sees Winterbourne watching her and Giovanelli. She remarks, “Well, he looks at us as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs!” (316) This foreshadows Winterbourne’s forthcoming and final rejection of Daisy. Specifically, it refers to the sacrifice of innocence – the Christian martyrs of ancient Rome were innocent people thrown to the wild animals. Likewise, Daisy is thrown to the figurative beasts, because Winterbourne decides that she is no longer innocent. He does not necessarily believe her guilty of incestuous or sexual activity, but that she is unwilling to conform to a sense of modesty.
The circumstances surrounding Daisy’s death are hard to interpret. Did she truly die of just the Roman fever? Perhaps not; her bright personality begins to wither after she is rejected. Winterbourne, even after deciding to disassociate from Daisy, tells her that she will imperil herself if she does not leave—he knows the Colosseum to be a “nest of malaria” (316). Daisy asks him if he believed her earlier when she said she was engaged to the young Italian. The reply: “I believe that it makes very little difference whether you are engaged or not!” (317) The denouncement hits so hard that Daisy appears to lose her joie de vivre. “I don’t care,” Miss Miller strangely retorts, “whether I have Roman fever or not!” (317)
Daisy does contract the Roman fever and falls ill. While she is still alive, her mother relays a message to Winterbourne on her [Daisy’s] behalf: “She told me to tell you that she never was engaged to that handsome Italian” (318). The quietus does finally come, and at the funeral, Giovanelli tells Winterbourne that Daisy was the “most beautiful,” “most amiable” and “most innocent” girl he ever saw (318). The final realization on Winterbourne’s part, then, is that he made a severe error in judgment—one that Mrs. Costello had predicted he would, as he admits to her. Mrs. Miller’s and Giovanelli’s words prove that Daisy never was to marry the Italian, and that she was innocent. She was a harmlessly coquettish girl, and it was both society and Winterbourne’s own condemnatory attitude that sentenced her.
Daisy’s death, and one of the events leading up to it, is foreshadowed in the text. In Chapter 4, Daisy is in the Palace of the Caesars. The description reads, “The early Roman spring had filled the air with bloom and perfume, and the rugged surface of the Palatine was muffled with tender verdure. Daisy was strolling along the top of one of those great mounds of ruin that are embanked with mossy marble and paved with monumental inscriptions” (314). The words “bloom,” “perfume” and “verdure” are ‘flowery’ nouns, likely alluding to Daisy’s character, since she too takes her nickname from a flower. Like a flower, in fact, Daisy is simple, natural, novel and pretty, but also short-lived.
If the pleasant description of springtime in Rome is to be equated with Daisy, then the ruin she traverses warns of another kind of ruin—the ruin into which Daisy will fall after the Colosseum scene. Further ominous foreshadowing takes place when she is at the Colosseum itself. Winterbourne too has decided to see the Colosseum by the moonlight. The setting is a silently foreboding one, filled with “deep shade,” “empty arches” and “cavernous shadows”; the ambiance of the Colosseum itself is likened to a “villainous miasma”; the “waning moon” casts a pale light on some of the architecture, while a “thick gloom” covers an archway (316-7). Daisy and Giovanelli, when Winterbourne discovers them, are sitting underneath a large cross that is “covered with shadow” (316). The place is beautiful, but Winterbourne senses the danger in it.
Daisy’s actual death remains hard to analyze, though maybe it is not necessary to do so. James may have used it as a device to emphasize the toxicity of the familial culture, and its impact on Daisy—and on Winterbourne, as well! Whether or not Winterbourne’s rejection of her had to do with her death, the fundamental reason she fell ill was not because she might have had hasty morals, but because she was too hasty in considering her physical wellbeing. “Winterbourne listened to him [Giovanelli]; he stood staring at the raw protuberance among the April daisies” (319). At the funeral, Winterbourne cannot help but notice the daisies, which are, as Daisy was, obtrusive, prominent and forcing themselves into consciousness in their raw quality. Daisy either did not know or did not care about being different, and she was only declared ‘guilty’ for going against social norms. She was pigeonholed into European society as a shameless flirt, a classification she never escapes. We can draw the parallel between being trapped in a social scale and being trapped in a fate of death. If she had been allowed to live, it would run counter to the story’s message.
Winterbourne asks himself if Miss Daisy Miller ought to know better than to act as she does, and he does not realize that she does not know better. Winterbourne is at odds with himself, because he cannot get past the girl’s appearance, and he cannot accept the reality as he perceives it to be. We can only wonder if Winterbourne is any better than the society around him—his aunt and other women gossip; he makes snap judgments; he goes right back to his former life as if nothing has happened.
Chopin’s The Awakening develops its protagonist primarily through the symbol of birds. The novel opens with references to two birds: a “green and yellow parrot” and a mocking-bird (368). We are told that the parrot speaks Spanish, as well as another language, one that is indecipherable to all but the other bird. When Edna Pontellier is introduced, she is described as a very attractive woman, although she does not yet seem to possess any particularly remarkable characteristics.
Edna lives in New Orleans with husband 40-year-old Léonce Pontellier, a well-to-do businessman. In Chapter IV, we are told that “Mrs. Pontellier, though she had married a Creole, was not so thoroughly at home in the society of Creoles; never before had she been thrown so intimately among them” (375). Though not of the same heritage, she has spent a good deal of time in Creole society. We get a glimpse into her personality: She is “not a mother-woman” like the other ladies, who are given the birdlike description of “fluttering about with extended, protecting wings” (374) when they perceive a potential threat to their children. The character of Adèle Ratignolle is also introduced, a strikingly beautiful woman and the quintessential Victorian wife and mother.
In the subsequent chapter, Robert Lebrun is introduced. Two years Edna’s junior, he has decided to ‘devote’ himself to her for the summer. He offers to go for a swim with her, and although she declines, she later wonders (in Chapter VI) why she rejected the offer. This is the first real glimpse into Edna’s conflicted mind; she does not understand her own new feelings as she begins to “realize her position in the universe as a human being” (378).
It is not until Chapter IX that Edna undergoes the first ‘awakening,’ when Mademoiselle Reisz, a detached older woman, plays a powerful piano composition at a party. But Mme. Reisz’ ensuing recital is so profoundly moving that Edna cannot even associate any imagery with it. We are told that “the very passions themselves were aroused within her soul, swaying it, lashing it, as the waves daily beat upon her splendid body” (388). Edna’s body trembles and she breaks into tears. Edna’s slowly emerging feelings toward Robert, and Mme. Reisz’ performance, are the first examples of the many different people and experiences that ignite awakenings in Edna. Mme. Reisz’ music, for example, gives birth to previously unrealized desires for music and art.
Rather than attempt to deconstruct the entire novel into all of its revelations about Edna and her developments, we can use the first few chapters—as explained above—to “set the stage” and to begin to establish what is taking place. The bird references can begin to be explained, as well: The parrot and the mocking-bird, introduced at the outset of the novel, are representative of Edna and Mme. Reisz, respectively. Edna is in many ways the parrot: It is trapped and isolated within a cage outside the house. Likewise, as Chapter IV suggests, Edna is also isolated. The cage is her marriage, and that the bird is not inside the house refers back to the fact that Edna is not truly a part of Creole society. “Parrot” also serves as a verb: Edna, and the other women, is expected to mimic the behavior of the model matriarch. Mrs. Pontellier certainly speaks a ‘language’ foreign to others: She is the only woman, save for Mme. Reisz, who comes realize the potential for independence. The one person who understands Edna is Mademoiselle Reisz, the mocking-bird that whistles the “fluty notes.” The bird’s musical notes are Mme. Reisz’ music.
We hear from the parrot again in Chapter IX, who begins shrieking when the twin girls play a song. The bird, it seems, was “the only one present who possessed sufficient candor to admit that he was not listening” to the music. The parrot, having “hurled against the twins” the “whole venom of his nature,” remains silent after his interruption (386). As the story reveals more about Edna’s relationship with her children, the bird’s “impetuous outburst” echoes Edna’s attitude toward them—she feels trapped and tries to escape them.
Another reference to birds is the pigeon house (433). This is the new house Edna moves into, for the purpose of separating herself from her husband’s possessions. Although the house grants independence, Edna has really only traded in one birdcage for another. The house is “just two steps away” (430), she tells Mme. Reisz, and Edna remains trapped in her old life despite this independence. While Edna was first comparable to a brightly plumed parrot, she now is a comparatively dull pigeon. The term “pigeonhole” suggests itself here; it can mean either to assign something to a category, or it can mean a tidy category that does not reflect actual complexities.
Earlier on, we passed over a reference to the sea in Chapter VI: “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (378). Edna has not yet undergone the first awakening and rebirth in the sea—that is in Chapter X—but this is an indication of what is to come.
Chapter IX also includes a song played by Madame Ratignolle that Edna calls “Solitude.” She imagines “the figure of a man standing beside a desolate rock on the seashore. He was naked. His attitude was one of hopeless resignation as he looked toward a distant bird winging its flight away from him” (388). This is the first passage that really presages Edna’s death. Edna is the bird in flight, and the naked man is her husband; the passage represents Edna’s choice to leave her husband, who is powerless to stop her.
In the following chapter, Robert proposes going for a late swim. Edna’s venture out into the sea is a powerful experience; for the first time, she can swim, and everyone is surprised. She feels energized and empowered as she undergoes an awakening and achieves self-knowledge. Prior to this, perhaps, she was afraid to venture too far out into the water for fear of being alone in the great sea, but now, she embraces that isolation. Edna does panic at one point; she has a brief vision of death, which may be interpreted not only as another indication of her fate, but also as the sadness of isolation. The sea represents freedom and strength, but fear as well.
The next reference to the sea is in Chapter XXI, but the reference is buried within the lyrics of the song “Liebestod” (“love-death”), from the opera Tristan and Isolde. Opera aficionados recognize that there is a reason for using Isolde’s Song as the piece is played. The song’s words augur Edna’s death in the sea: “As they swell and murmur round me, shall I breathe them, shall I listen? Shall I sip them, plunge beneath them? Breathe my last amid their sweet smell? In the billowy surge, in the gush of sound, In the World Spirit’s infinite All, To drown now, sinking unconscious, void of all thought—Highest Bliss/Desire!” (Hanson) The last two references to birds are in Chapters XXVII and XXXIX, and the passages are quite similar. In the former, Edna recounts Madame Reisz’ advice to her, “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth” (433). In the latter passage, Edna is walking down to the water, she notices an injured bird: “A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water” (458). Edna is the bird, and so in a sense she did not have strong enough wings to escape society—or did she simply feel that way? Edna gives herself freedom by dying with integrity and purpose, and the decision to die was none but hers.
Perhaps a sign of submission also comes with this independence; she feels controlled not by her husband but by her children. They are innocent, susceptible—the kids depend on her, including their reputation and happiness. So maybe Edna’s suicide is really submission; she is worried about society’s customs, attitudes, manners, and submits to them. She is worried about her kids’ reputations and how they would be treated if she left her husband. On the other hand, maybe she has done right by them: She has saved her kids’ reputation, and she has not betrayed herself. She does not feel responsible to Léonce, but returning to him for her kids’ sake would go against her very nature. Maybe the last bird is meant to be Edna’s inability to deal with the isolation she has gained. We might think of the bird as Edna’s failure to transcend her environment, or we might think of it as a sacrifice that Edna makes—the triumph of independence over convention.
In both stories, the judgments of others are death-dealing, and both women become victims of the crushing influence of the world around them. Daisy Miller, using innocence versus guilt, deals with social entrapment as more or less inescapable. The Awakening, using symbolism of birds and the sea, seems to suggest that it is possible, though very difficult to overcome and transcend one’s environment—and that doing so also requires sacrifice. The two novels rebuke culture’s judgmental and conformist attitudes, and they do so by showing us two individuals who are driven to destruction and condemned for challenging the conventions of society. The difference between the stories is how the characters choose to deal with their detachment. The two stories seem to end with a different outlook, but the overarching theme of entrapment is the same.
Chopin, Kate. “The Awakening.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature.
Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. 369-459.
Hanson, Paula. “Mild und leise, Isolde’s aria from Tristan und Isolde.” The
Aria Database. 15 Oct.
1999. 22 Feb. 2005. <http://www.aria-database.com/translations/tristan06a_mild.txt>.
Henry. “Daisy Miller: A Study.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature.
Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. 280-319.