Conventionality Vs. Instinct In Daisy Miller And The Awakening. Second Term Essay Henry James’s Daisy Miller and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening were first published twenty-one years apart, the former in 1878 and the latter in 1899. Despite the gap of more than two decades, however, the two works evince a similarity of thought and intent that is immediately evident in their main themes. Both works display characters whose lives have been governed almost solely by the conventions of their respective societies.
Furthermore, both works also attempt to demonstrate to the reader what happens when these conventions are challenged by individual instincts, which more often than not are in direct contradiction to the dictates of convention. The theme of conventionality versus instinct predominates both works. In Daisy Miller the theme is embodied in the character of Frederick Winterbourne, an ex-patriot American living in Europe. The Awakening’s Edna Pontellier serves as the means through which Kate Chopin examines her version of this theme. Both Winterbourne and Edna are trapped in conventional worlds, and both are affected by a deep, instinctive need to break free of the bonds that restrain them so absolutely.
The portrayal of this theme, however, is accomplished in different ways by Henry James and Kate Chopin. The main reason for this is that although the theme is common to both works, the protagonists’ experience of it are not. Conventionality has entrapped them in different ways, and their instinctive reactions arise out of differing circumstances. Frederick Winterbourne, for example, comes to a realization of his internal struggle between conventionality and instinct not in and of himself, but because of Miss Daisy Miller. Winterbourne meets the young Miss Miller in Vevay, Switzerland, while visiting his aunt, Mrs.
Costello. He realizes immediately that Daisy is not a conventional person, whether deliberately or through ignorance of European conventions. Winterbourne and Daisy, in fact, represent two vastly different ways of looking at the same world. He views reality in very conventional terms. Daisy has an unconventional perception of life and reality in Europe, and she acts accordingly.
Winterbourne is stiff, though worldly. Daisy is spontaneous and naive. It is no coincidence that she is dressed in white when we first meet her. James intends us to understand that she is very innocent, if only of European conventions. James reinforces Daisy’s unconventionality almost immediately.
When Winterbourne first meets her we are told, In Geneva, as he had been perfectly aware, a young man was not at liberty to speak to a young unmarried lady except under certain rarely occurring conditions (James 131). But Daisy flouts this convention immediately upon their first meeting. She not only speaks with him, unchaperoned, but makes a date to go with him to the old castle, also unchaperoned. Winterbourne is at a loss. He does not know how to react to Daisy. James explains that Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter, and his reason could not help him (137).
He does not understand Daisy, and so he reverts to his conventional views and tries to categorize Daisy in conventional terms. By this point the reader has realized that although the work is entitled Daisy Miller, it is really the story of Winterbourne’s internal struggle. Daisy is the catalyst through which Frederick’s old instincts begin to be reawakened, and to struggle against his conventional views of Daisy. This struggle is portrayed through the use of language and words, mostly in Winterbourne’s internal dialogue. He is continually attempting to understand Daisy and his own views of her unconventionality, by trying to define her through the use of language.
But he discovers that words ultimately fail. On the occasion of their first meeting he decides after a while that she was only a pretty American flirt (Ibid). His conventionality is satisfied, and James tells us Winterbourne was almost grateful for having found the formula that applied to Miss Daisy Miller (Ibid). Following this incident, Winterbourne discusses Miss Miller with his aunt, and again we see him trying to categorize her. He asks Mrs. Costello if Daisy is the sort of young lady who expects a man, sooner or later, to carry her off? (James 143).
Later in the same conversation he poses the question, But don’t they all do these things – the young girls in America? (Ibid). His conventionality is struggling to place Daisy into a conventional category, so that he can know once and for all how to react to her. As he ends his conversation with Mrs. Costello he is impatient to see Daisy again, and he was vexed with himself that, by instinct, he should not appreciate her justly (Ibid). This statement is ironic, of course, because it is his conventionality that will not allow him to appreciate Daisy.
His instincts, although blunted through a long subservience to convention, are attempting to lead him to the truth about her. They refuse to allow him to dismiss her simply as a ‘flirt’. His instincts, in fact, draw him to Daisy, and he tells her, You are a nice girl; but I wish you would flirt with me, and me only (James 175). Although he still uses conventional language and categories, his instincts recognize within Daisy a deeper self, a self that cannot be defined with the single word, flirt. Daisy, however, does not make Winterbourne’s internal struggle an easy one. While in Rome, she takes up with an Italian named Giovanelli, a young man who is interested in marrying her for her money. The other ex-patriots recognize Giovanelli for what he is, but the innocent nouveau-riche Daisy does not.
The other ex- patriots, the ultimate examples of conventionality, shun Daisy for fear that they will be judged by her. She is snubbed horribly at Mrs. Walker’s party when the hostess turns her back on Daisy and her mother. Daisy’s innocence is starkly emphasized here. For the first time since we have met her she has no idea what to do or say. She is shocked at the level of censure her actions have elicited.
It would be wrong to assume that Daisy was fully ignorant of the conventions she was flouting, but it would seem fair to say that she did not realize how deep- seated and important they were within the ex-patriot community. To Winterbourne’s credit he chides Mrs. Walker for her actions. To his discredit he does not follow Daisy to comfort her. His conventionality will not allow him to risk his place in the ex- patriot community.
Throughout Daisy Miller Winterbourne’s instincts lose the battle with his conventionality, and, in his final encounter with Daisy before her death, this is again the case. He comes upon her and Giovanelli alone, at night, in the Colosseum. This is of course much worse than anything she has done before, and it is evidence of her new defiance in the face of Mrs. Walker’s snubbing. Daisy could not possibly have been ignorant of the conventions she was breaking in this instance.
Upon seeing her there, Winterbourne’s internal battle is decided. He is finally able to place her, unequivocally, within a purely conventional category. And again, this is portrayed through his choice of words when he thinks to himself, She was a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be at pains to respect (James 186). He is relieved, even exhilarated, that he is finally able to categorize her. From this point his language changes.
He is no longer polite to her. When Daisy asks him if he really believed that she was engaged to Giovanelli, he replies stingingly I believe that it makes very little difference whether you are engaged or not! (James 188). His words, and even his tone, are curt and brutal. He is even laughing as he says it. Later, at Daisy’s funeral, he discovers that he has misjudged her.
Giovanelli tells him that Daisy was the most innocent young lady he had ever known (James 190), and that she would never have married the young Italian. Winterbourne’s conventional views are punctured, but it is too late. He understands his mistake now, and we know that he is aware of it through his choice of words. He says to Mrs. Costello, I was booked to make a mistake.
I have lived too long in foreign parts (James 191). In other words, he allowed the conventions of the ex- patriot community to rule his instincts, and therefore lost a chance for happiness with Daisy. Having said this, however, Winterbourne remains in Europe, the same place that blinded him to opportunity. As well, he becomes involved with a very clever foreign lady (Ibid). The words clever foreign lady are all opposite to ones which would be used to describe Daisy.
So, not only does Winterbourne remain in Europe, he also takes up with a woman who is the opposite of Daisy. Even after realizing his mistakes, Winterbourne has associated himself again with conventionality. The theme of conventionality versus instinct is slightly different in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Whereas Winterbourne has a prior association with instinct, Chopin’s heroine Edna Pontellier does not. Her life has been governed purely by the conventions of a patriarchal society.
Before her summer at Grand Isle instinct had never been a part of her life. This particular summer, however, her instincts be …