Daisy to Daisy

When reading Henry James’ Daisy Miller, one cannot help note the influences the story has on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s works, particularly in regards to the character of Daisy Miller, transformed into Daisy Buchanan. In this comparison, we see the two figures are much alike in terms of name, description, and even speech patterns. It is almost as if these two ladies were the same person, as if Fitzgerald picked up Daisy Miller, gave her a new last name, and pretended she hadn’t died of malaria in Rome.

I propose that Daisy Buchanan is modeled closely after Daisy Miller, to the extent that the former can be said to be an older version of the latter. Fitzgerald must have been captivated by the figure of Daisy Miller, and wondered what sort of girl she would have become had she not been so tragically struck down by malaria. Daisy Buchanan is his answer to that question.

I always think it best to start with the name “Daisy” itself and consider its etymology and what, therefore, the reader can expect from a so-named character. “Daisy”, as William Carlos Williams notes in the first line of his poem by the same title, comes from the combination of the two words “day’s eye”, given because its petals close at night and reopen with the sun. Williams notes some important qualities of the daisy, as the speaker of the poem closely examines one, that it is fascinatingly delicate, the petals thin to the point of translucency—a mere touch and it is bruised! The daisy is a beautiful, ephemeral flower, carefree and careless, in and of itself, a thing to be admired and looked at, growing from rich, fecund earth but reciprocating with nothing but its own radiance. Daisy Miller is such a flower. Our first description of her regards her physical beauty:

The young lady meanwhile had drawn near. She was dressed in white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-colored ribbon. She was bare-headed; but she balanced in her hand a large parasol, with a deep border of embroidery; and she was strikingly, admirably pretty. (393)

This entire description is distinctly visual, and could literally be a description of a flower. She is entrancing from the first moment we meet her on account of her lavish dress and appearance, and Winterbourne soon finds himself stealing glances at her lovely features, particularly her “wonderfully pretty eyes” and her “eminently delicate” face. Daisy vainly spends much of her time smoothing out her bows and ribbons, rigorously attentive to maintaining her complexion. Fitzgerald takes the same visual route when we first meet Daisy Buchanan:

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew the curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as a wind does at sea.
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.” (8)

Here, Fitzgerald paints an ekphrasis of Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus, in which Daisy Buchanan becomes the golden-haired goddess herself, the enormous couch is her seashell, which she floats upon, buoyant, gently tossed by the windy Zephyr flowing through the open windows. What an extraordinary vision Fitzgerald paints for us, what an extraordinary way to introduce a character.

From the beginning, we know that both Daisies are distinctly physical specimens of feminine beauty. And, given we have the ideal daisy flower in our hands, we must assume that it is growing from only the finest, richest soil. Neither girl, I suspect, could survive without and enormous amount of wealth readily available for disposal. Daisy Miller is the daughter of a wealthy businessman from New York, a member of what Henry James calls the “reckless class”. She is empowered with money to travel abroad with her careless mother (a woman who rarely seems to have any control or concern for Daisy Miller’s situation) and meet the acquaintance of whomever she finds pleasing. In this act, she fosters a degree of boldness along with an air of innocence; she possesses what might be called the audacity of innocence, the sort of forgivable ignorance that leads to one ask inappropriately forward questions, and generally fail to understand the circumstances from which others are speaking.1

Daisy Buchanan grows from the same pot of wealth, having married the successful Tom Buchanan, and having come from an upper-class home. She too comes from the reckless class, or as Fitzgerald describes it, she is a person who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into…money and…vast carelessness.” She is moved by Gatsby’s mansion, impressed by his wealth, and pivotally brought to tears by his shirts (“’They’re such beautiful shirts’, she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘it makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.’”).

Nick Carraway is often taken aback by Daisy’s voice, the “inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle in it, the cymbals of it”. It is Gatsby himself who recognizes that her mellifluous voice is “full of money”; its beauty a function of meretricious material charm. She is, on all accounts, the epitome of Madonna’s “Material Girl”, living in a material world.

Both Daisy Miller and Buchanan share a very peculiar—and similar—way of speaking. The first thing one notices in their speech is a general prolixity. Daisy Miller is more than ready to speak—at length—about any topic regarding herself without hesitation, discretion, or even thought.2 She seems to say things merely to invoke a response, to get a rise out of people, telling Mr. Witherbourne she was engaged just to see his reaction, or “prattling” on about her own affairs, or hoping for a “fuss”—“that’s all I want—a little fuss!” Daisy Miller has little concern for public reputation, and thus has little concern for what she says. She is a girl who says whatever pops into her head, with the assumption that it is both worth saying, and worth hearing. Daisy Buchanan is guilty of the same crime:

“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly: “What do people plan?”
Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.
“Look!” she complained; “I hurt it.” (11-12)

Daisy Buchanan literally says everything that comes to her mind, and we are given open view of her entire thought process, spelled out before us. Fitzgerald adds an extra twist, noting her short attention span, as an alarming object catches her eye, completely overriding her previous thought processes in favor of the more pressing matter that has come to light: she has cut her finger, so slightly she didn’t even notice. But this is the nature of the Daisy flower; utter vanity inspires deep concern in even the most minute physical deformation, and allows room for very little actual thought.

Daisy leaned forward again, her voice glowing and singing. “I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a—of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn’t he?” She turned to Miss Baker for confirmation: “An absolute rose?”
This was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose. (14)

Here we see another example of Daisy Buchanan’s lack of thought in her comparison of Nick Carraway to a rose. She repeats it to herself, as if the repetition will affirm the statement itself, and when she finds this method of corroboration doesn’t work, she turns to Jordon Baker for help. Nick, of course, notes that this comparison is completely false. It is meaningless speech—words said for the sake of saying something.

Fitzgerald reiterates this point a number of times in the scene where Daisy attempts to speak words of wisdom. Relating the story of her daughter’s birth, she says:

‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’
“You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,” she went on in a convinced way. “Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” Her eyes flashed around in a defiant way…and she laughed with thrilling scorn. “Sophisticated—God I’m sophisticated!”

In this, we get the Daisy Buchanan motto: be a fool. Intelligence never got a girl anywhere, so why waste your time trying to sound smart when you can just use the powers of Venus? Again, she repeats herself a number of times, indicating a degree of self-affirmation, as well as uncertainty in what she is saying. Her source to back up her statements is narrowed from “everybody” to the vague concept of “the most advanced people.” Realizing this is not necessarily a reliable source, she then falls back on personal experience as the basis of her wisdom, ending in an exclamation that seems painfully ironic. We are left to wonder if she believes any of this herself, or if she is just blowing hot air.

Henry James focuses on Daisy Miller’s naiveté in a more indirect way, as Winterbourne notes that she could care less for visiting castles or historical landmarks.

The young man asked Mrs. Miller how she was pleased with Rome. “Well, I must say I am disappointed,” she answered. “we had heard so much about it; I suppose we had heard too much. But we couldn’t help that. We had been led to expect something different.”

Daisy and Mrs. Miller reach Rome in all its majesty, walk around, see the sights, and find themselves disappointed. They believe they have been let down, that it is the fault of the art, not the fault of their own ignorance. Daisy and Mrs. Miller forget that the art is not on trial. They are so self consumed that they cannot appreciate the great city of Rome, full of some of the most magnificent art and architecture in the world. The daisy flower, as we have already noted, is not meant to admire other things—it is meant to be admired. Its ability to appreciate anything beyond itself or without direct relation to itself is incredibly limited.

Note also that both Daisies are, by their nature, flirty. Upon arriving to Nick’s house, Daisy Buchanan asks Nick if she has secretly invited her over because he loves her. Daisy Miller coolly flirts with Winterbourne, specifying that she wants him to visit her in Rome not because of some side trip to see his Aunt, but because she wants him to want to see her. Indeed, Winterbourne spends the vast span of Daisy Miller debating whether the young lady is innocent, or a coquette.

“Coolness” is an attractive trait for both Daisies. For Daisy Buchanan, it is this word that publicly reveals her love for Gatsby: “Ah,” she cried, “you look so cool.”… “You always look so cool.” For Daisy Miller, the first quality she points out in her young Italian suitor is his coolness: “But there’s Giovanelli, leaning against that tree. He’s staring at the women in the carriages: did you ever see anything so cool?” For both of them, there is something about coolness which they find distinctly alluring. Note that in both cases coolness is something they observe, not something that is necessarily there, just appears to be there. The sense of this word in both cases is “deliberate, calm, not hasty,” which seems to be—apart from wealth—a winning quality for a man to possess, perhaps because any other sort of man would be too much for the delicate flower, anything but careful deliberation would undoubtedly lead to tragedy—and it does.

It does not take much to see that there are many parallels between Daisy Miller and Daisy Buchanan. Clearly, Fitzgerald saw something in the character of Daisy Miller, something about he wanted to explore, namely: what happens to all the Daisy Millers in the world who do not die young of malaria? How does such a person proceed into later stages of life? Daisy Buchanan is his answer.

1 “But Daisy, on this occasion, continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.” (415)

2 “Of her own tastes, habits, and intentions Miss Miller was prepared to give the most definite, and indeed the most favourable account.” (407)

3 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s