To Flirt? Daisy Miller Has an Answer...

Carolyn Shields

Daisy Miller, A Study by Henry James

American literature's biggest flirt or most holy innocent?

This novella which put Henry James on the map, author of The Turn of the Screw, presented America with either its greatest literary flirt or holy innocent...and debates on Daisy's character still get vicious in university classrooms. This novella chronicles a man named Winterbourne, who quote, "dreaded the idea that Daisy Miller was surrounded by half-a-dozen wonderful mustaches," which checked his impulse to visit her in Italy straightaway. Essentially, he was fascinated by this young (and somewhat seemingly clueless) woman.

Winterbourne, James's prematurely aged, American royalty, falls for Daisy because she does not play by the rules, much to everyone's very vocal chagrin. She repeatedly calls Winterbourne (ironic name, yah?) "stiff," for he never ceases to comment on her ever-so-very-noticed behavior by the public at large, what with gallivanting around Rome with an Italian man. Hark! The scandal!

But either Daisy is naive about the social protocol which she frequently violates and is completely oblivious to the gossip that surrounds her, or she simply does not care and freely flirts.

Elizabeth Bernstein, author ofThe New Rules of Flirting, claims that people flirt for six reasons: for fun, testing romantic waters, reinforcing intimacy, boosting self-esteem, and getting what they want.  Dave Henningen, a professor of communication at Northern Illinoise University claims that there are five goals for flirting: again, simply to have fun and boost self-esteem, to gauge interest, to reinforce a relationship, and to find a partner.

But what constitutes as flirting? For Daisy, it was having an opinion in 1870 Italy. Now? Is it holding eye contact for a few seconds? Laughing at jokes that aren't funny? Playful texts? 

Flirting: a dark art or a playful act? Sadly, Dr. Frisby of the University of Kentucky found in a study that the more sexually active women are in flirting (and by this, I'm assuming playful physical contact, suggestive stares, and more stuff that which makes me cringe), the more men find them attractive. Which, you know, sucks. Because when men do this, Dr. Frisby claims, they come across as aggressive and women are turned off by their forward actions. We think: PERV, stay back, I've got MACE.



So where's the line drawn then? What's appropriate? Why is Winterbourne so attractive to this seemingly clueless girl whose winning smile is melting his heart, but whose mindlessness seems too cunningly schemed? Henry James admits, "It was impossible to regard her as a perfectly well-conducted young lady," but is this because of her holy innocence or her forward manner? 

Winterbourne confronts Daisy, "You're a very nice girl, but I wish you would flirt with me, and me only." Well, don't they all. But I think it's crucially important to note that women want to interpret every little sign as a possible sign of budding affection. Or am I alone in this? Let me rephrase it: we read into things. And we become so incredibly frustrated when men's actions do not match what we imagine is their intent. A smile could simply be a statement drawing attention to pearly whites, not a vague suggestion of everlasting attraction.

I can't even make a case saying flirting is fun. Flirting makes me nauseated because I hate the ambiguity of it. Please deliver blunt honesty to me, thank you.  

So what think you? How far is too far when it comes to flirting? What do you deem appropriate?  

Daisy Miller's character is still in question, and there is nothing about her that is particularly perplex except to Winterbourne, whose eyes are the sole glimpse we have of Daisy. Flirting, when done appropriatly, can be a simple invitation to the opposite sex that yes, you would like a solo date, but when played callously without a clear goal, the stakes of our character are placed on the field.