How Completely Misunderstanding Henry James Helped Me Survive High School
Daisy Miller was my model for rising above my bullies, but as an adult I realized I’d gotten her all wrong
Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book you misunderstood?
Fourth period was just about over, but I left the art room and headed to the bathroom at the end of the hallway. There was never enough time between bells, anyway. I passed blank bulletin boards, closed classroom doors, and at least a dozen maroon lockers before she saw me and walked over, each step strong and deliberate. She twisted my hair into one fist, crashing my head into the nearest locker; the other fist found my side, my stomach, my ribs. I yelled, maybe for a teacher, probably for my mom, who would hurry across town to take me home just a few minutes later.
This wasn’t the first time my mom left work to rush to my high school. She had come to pick me up from the nurse’s office, bruised from suspicious misthrows in gym class, or from the principal’s, if a rumor made its way to the administration. Each time, she would reach for me, offering a hug or a hand on my shoulder, and she would ask what had happened. I had no idea what happened, though. I had moved to this small town just in time to start my freshman year. My arrival prompted a vehement response from my fifty or so peers that grew more vociferous, more violent when I stayed.
Go home, they told me. You’re not wanted.
Much of the abuse at the hands of my new classmates centered on how I looked (greasy, tired, miserable) and who I might be sleeping with (admittedly, no one). The rest was spontaneous, critical dismissals of my clothes, my speech, my actions. Between classes, I might feel a passing shoulder thrust into my back or hear a “slut” slung sotto voce if teachers were present; if they weren’t, there might be a screeching announcement for the shuffling crowd that I was a prostitute or a prude, depending on the day.
At home, if I signed online, the messages were inevitable. Some from familiar screen names, some from thinly veiled pseudonyms, all of them cruel.
The insults were constant and conflicting. I had greasy skin that needed covering, or I wore too much cakey makeup. In local parlance, I was a “dirtbag,” despicably poor because I wore Walmart sneakers to gym class, or I was a “rich-bitch,” a snob who liked to read and planned to go to college. My classmates were always consistent on two points, though: no one liked me, and no one wanted me here.
We were all in agreement there: I didn’t want to be there and couldn’t wait to leave.
Through the rumors, the abuse, the bruises, I read and hoped that books and grades would be my way out of that town and into college, where I planned to reinvent myself. I wouldn’t have to be weighed down with insecurities about my appearance, my sexuality, my self worth; I wouldn’t worry about being too ugly to go school, too promiscuous if I talked to a boy, too much of a prude if I didn’t. No one there would know about the lunch table that formed a club dedicated to hating me (membership always open). Not a single person would know about that party where they dumped a bottle of Sprite over my head the moment I arrived. The sweet, acrid bubbles burned my eyes almost as much as the cheers, but that scene, that sting, would be left behind when I moved away.
I just had to make it until then.
In the spring of my senior year, I decided that I’d be going to a small liberal arts college in Schenectady, New York. It was a few hours down the Thruway but worlds away from my small town. Preparations began immediately. I suspected my school — under-funded, under-populated, and largely confined to teaching to the state tests — meant that I would be less prepared than my incoming classmates, and I was determined to catch up, to fit in this time. I scoured lists of standard high school reading assignments.
The one I picked up was Henry James’s 1879 novella Daisy Miller. I can’t remember now whether that was because my favorite English teacher lent me a copy, or the single-room library in town happened to hold a slim edition on their limited shelf-space. I do remember that my reaction was immediate. I was enamored, and I was settled: this would be my reinvention.
The title character is captivating. Confident and pretty, Daisy flirts with men when she wants to and tells them when she doesn’t; she sweeps into high society parties in decadent dresses and visits Roman ruins or Swiss castles with the same style, the same vivacity. She flourishes in Switzerland and Italy just as easily as in Schenectady, New York, her hometown. This coincidence confirmed my affinity for Daisy. I decided to be confident, and I was certain Schenectady would become my stepping stone, too.
The only problem with refashioning myself to be more like Daisy was that I had gotten the story all wrong. I wouldn’t realize it for years, but in that first reading, I glossed over the descriptions of Daisy and her character’s interactions with society. I somehow managed to miss the ending of the novella- and, probably worse, the point.
When I was applying to graduate school after finishing my Master’s program, my boyfriend brought me his complete collection of Norton anthologies. The pages were yellowed, and the spines were crinkled or covered in bookstore stickers. The book of literature from the Middle Ages, a comparatively thin volume, had a dark cover besmeared with undetermined stickiness. I used the books to take notes as I studied for the literature exam, sitting on the couch in the apartment I shared with some of my closest friends from college or setting up camp in the English department with classmates from my Master’s program or, if the day was warm and sunny, relaxing on a park bench downtown in the Common.
It was while reading through this stack of borrowed anthologies that I came across Daisy again. My context for reading the novella couldn’t have been more different — I lived in a city I liked, I felt certain of myself and my worth, I felt supported by a network of close friends and a loving relationship. I was so excited to revisit the story after so much time.
Except reading Daisy Miller wasn’t nostalgic or sweet, after all; it was shocking.
At first, the story was familiar. James opens the novella with characteristic long, winding sentences that lead the reader into the world of a distinctly nineteenth-century high class society. But in the introductory description, James makes it clear that Vevey and Geneva are interchangeable with any other European city, perhaps even American destinations like “Newport and Saratoga,” because of the hotels and the travellers, particularly the young, pretty women of means. In all of these cities, James explains, “is a flitting hither and thither of ‘stylish’ young girls, a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance-music in the mornings, a sound of high-pitched voices at all times.” Here, barely through the first paragraph, I cringed.
The description of young women that precedes the introduction of Daisy is dismissive at best. The use of “girls” is derisive, the description of their “muslin flounces” drips with dismissal of nouveau-riche decadence. The “high-pitched voices” grate. And this, apparently, was universal.
Introduced when the ex-pat Winterbourne notices her dressed in “frills and flounces” from afar, Daisy is undeniably representative of these girls. While she does travel to these great cities, Daisy is only mildly interested in visiting cultural or historical landmarks. Her speech is indicative of her new money, with contractions like “ain’t” sprinkled in, lest the reader forget this character’s station. She does flirt skillfully and recreationally when she chooses and, quite impressfully, tells Winterbourne point-blank when she doesn’t want to flirt with him. But this moment of empowered denial becomes Daisy’s undoing; when she turns down Winterbourne, she chooses the wrong guy and seals her fate.
As the story progresses, Daisy attends society parties, but her new-money status and her disregard for propriety stand out. Other characters try to warn her: “You’re old enough to be more reasonable,” one of her last friends Mrs. Walker warns her when she sees Daisy walking alone with the Italian Giovanelli, undeniably concerned with the man’s social status and race as much as the unchaperoned walk. “You’re old enough, dear Miss Miller, to be talked about.”
After this, that’s mostly how Daisy appears in the novella. She becomes the subject of other characters’ conversations, most of them dismissive or disparaging. By the end of the story, James reduces this title character to a symbol, a fallen young woman who is to be remembered only as a cautionary tale or, for Winterbourne and Giovanelli, the romance that could have been. In one of the final scenes, these two former suitors remember Daisy as beautiful, as charming, and — an emphatic afterthought—as innocent. In their exchange, this final, almost-forgotten description of Daisy is repeated three times. Even as former suitors fondly remember Daisy, the focus ultimately rests on her specious purity. Reading through this scene, I was baffled at how I missed it the first time. My assigned reading in high school might have been insufficiently broad, but I definitely should have known how to recognize irony.
I started to question how I had skipped over the clear details and failed to pick up unsubtle messages during that first read years before, but it quickly became evident. My misreading itself was telling. I had glossed over these details and missed these messages in order to read the book that I needed to, in order to read Daisy as the confident, capable character I wanted her to be.
Daisy Miller is beautiful, wealthy, and flirtatious. But she is not well-liked in those society circles. Her proximity to the small communities of rich expat Americans allows her access to these people and their parties, but she’s never really welcome. In fact, it seems like if she had been at my high school, she might have had a lunch table club of her own. If Sprite had existed then, someone might have even dumped a bottle on her, too.
I had completely misread the novella, but maybe my identification with Daisy wasn’t all that off.
After Daisy turns down Winterbourne, he tells her that everyone is talking about how much time she is spending with Giovanelli. Daisy’s response is a matter-of-fact quip, but it’s also an astute observation: “But I don’t believe a word of it. They’re only pretending to be shocked. They don’t really care a straw what I do.” Daisy doesn’t put stock in what these people are saying about her because she recognizes that this disparaging talk, this passing of judgement, is purely recreational for them. She simply doesn’t care.
At 17, after years of enduring insults and rumors, shoulders and softballs, I envied Daisy’s apathy. More than new opportunities, better classes, or bigger cities, I desperately wanted the confidence to not care what my high school classmates had said about me. I needed the assurance that I wouldn’t have to carry that with me forever. Daisy gave that to me.
Sitting in Boston, years removed from those high school hallways, I realized this was more important than than any moral message or societal commentary or even plot point in the novella. Daisy is a character on the fringe of a small circle that rejects her cruelly and consistently. This fictional society — a high-class community of Americans traveling through Europe in lavish hotels and luxe settings — was far removed from my real high school in rural upstate New York. But I still identified with Daisy despite that distance. Even if I didn’t recognize it at the time, by focusing on Daisy’s confidence and glossing over the cruelty she endured, I was misreading James’s story, sure, but I was also using it as a tool for making sense of my own experiences.
Reading the novella now, Daisy’s character is all the more compelling because of her confidence throughout the rejections, the rumors, the cruelty. Maybe I’m noticing this because I’m far enough removed from my experience with high school bullies. Or maybe I’m just seeing myself in Daisy again, but maybe that’s the point of reading, or even misreading, after all.