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Henry James wrote in the tradition of "realism" -- portraying life as it really exists in the upper echelons of society (not a romanticized version of how it should be). From his childhood and his travels, he intimately knew these "society" people, who could afford to devote themselves to the "finer" things in life. He could, therefore, successfully develop their characters in his writing; but James, faithful to his realistic approach, showed that all is not smooth and easy at the upper levels. In his fiction, he revealed the inevitable clash between individuals and society, particularly the struggle of the innocent American in the staid and traditional European society.
In developing this American-European plot, James criticized society and its out-of-date conventions, often through the use of irony. He also developed realistic characters that were always consistent to their essential beings. They were usually three- dimensional in their complexities; like real people, they normally had charming as well as disturbing attributes. Daisy Miller was one of these characters.
Daisy Miller actually stirred up a literary scandal in the United States. Were American girls really so ignorant? Were American families really so lost in Europe? Many of James' American characters portray an unsettling mix of charm and ignorance, but Daisy is the epitome of the type. She is filled with fun and spontaneity, but totally ignorant of social custom and tradition. As a result, she makes one blunder after another in European society. It is, therefore, not surprising that Daisy meets with personal tragedy, and the nouvelle becomes a social tragedy, like so many of James' fictional works. James' later novel, Portrait of a Lady (1881), takes up the same theme of the young, innocent American woman in Europe, but on a grander scale.
Daisy Miller is a prime example of the "nouvelle," a literary form that James liked and with which he worked very comfortably. Something like a novella and less than a novel, the nouvelle takes on a limited number of characters and shows a social situation in almost allegorical terms. The nouvelle is probably closest in structure to the short story, except that it is longer. Because of its length, it can develop both depth and pathos.
It is important to note that Daisy Miller was revised by the author, who changed the divisions within the book. Sometimes the nouvelle appears with two sections (one set in Switzerland and the second in Italy); and sometimes there are four sections (two in Switzerland and two in Italy). The summaries found below look at the book in two sections.