"Winterbourne and the Doom of Manhood in Daisy Miller," by Robert Weisbuch
New Essays on Daisy Miller and the Turn of The Screw, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993: 65-90

Reviewed by Barry Hite

Throughout Daisy Miller, much is made of the fact that Winterbourne is a man who has spent "too much time in foreign parts," away from what is or should be native to him. This only begs the question; what is the tradition from which Winterbourne can be said to originate? In his study of Winterbourne, Weisbuch attempts to place Winterbourne within both a cultural and historical context, presumably in hopes of providing a better understanding of the character's role and fate in James' critique of Victorian and American aristocratic circles.
As Weisbuch sees it, Winterbourne's misconstructed manhood is a product of the stifling ennui that defines Winterbourne's world. This manhood is also the primary agent of Ms. Miller's death. Simply, Weisbuch's argument is built upon the assumption that Winterbourne is actually the subject of study in Daisy Miller. Thus, as Winterbourne grows more fervent in his judgments of Daisy, he "is more brightly presented" to the reader. (James, 86 ) The ambiguity and confusion over Daisy's status as vixen or innocent are merely tools that James uses to draw out, piecemeal, the misshapen opinions and character of Winterbourne. (Weisbuch, 71)
Weisbuch claims Winterbourne is completely defined by the dominant cultural forces at work during James time. Weisbuch assumes that in characterizing Winterbourne this way, James' intended to explode these cultural phenomena. Winterbourne's misconstructed gender identity, defined by its paralyzing consciousness, detached objectification of Daisy, hypocrisy and barely concealed perversity, is by all means intended to ape what James saw as the most vexing traits of the leisure class that he presents to us in"Daisy Miller."
In Weisbuch's view, Daisy Miller is intended to document the growing anxiety of an insecure aristocracy. By Winterbourne's time "industry and the changes that it brought with it in social organization and individual personalities came upon an America that [had just begun] to know itself."(Weisbuch, 68) As a result, the nouveau riche that industry produced have overthrown the barely established genteel patriarchy, the old money that Winterbourne represents--with his education in Geneva and high standing among the most desirable circles of expatriates. Winterbourne's "quaint," outmoded code of propriety, informed by caste, has been supplanted by the uniquely democratic, competitive individualism that keeps Ezra B. Miller in Schenectady on "big business."
With this in mind, Winterbourne's permanent vacation in Geneva takes on a whole new dimension of significance. Unwilling to enter into the open competition that defines his time, Winterbourne has withdrawn from all forms of contest and returned to the old world--one of the last redoubts for the caste system to which he ascribes. This ingrained refusal to acknowledge competition manifests in his refusal to behave toward Daisy with love. Instead, Winterbourne resorts to anachronistic convention, a perverse form of detachment and his authority as a sort of surrogate parent. Presumably to avoid competing with Giovanelli or anyone else not associated with the leisure class. His renunciation of competition thus precipitates Daisy's renunciation of life. (Weisbuch, 80) While, his failure to see how he ever wronged Daisy and his subsequent resumption of yet another affair with "a very clever foreign lady" reflects an almost fatalistic wish to repeat the process.
Weisbuch's interpretation of Daisy Miller aligns itself nicely with parts of Prof. Railton's lecture. Both accounts stress the fact that Winterbourne suffers from a withering instinct and elevated consciousness that effectively paralyze him and prevent him from acting on his desires for Daisy's companionship. (Weisbuch, 77) Both also acknowledge the ambiguity of Winterbourne's desire for Daisy. Both claim that Winterbourne's desire for Daisy may reflect a desire on his part to reclaim some of that native instinct and signal a rejection of the stifling cult of culture worship that has enveloped most of his colleagues and relatives.
Yet, both Prof. Railton and Weisbuch point to the often-perverse undertones of his desire for Daisy and its grotesque manifestations. Winterbourne's desires for Daisy could either be an attempt to reclaim some portion of that lost native instinct or, as Daisy can never be elevated to Winterbourne's caste; his desires may be to simply have her "enter his dirty little world so that he will not have to leave it." (Weisbuch, 79) Most importantly, both works acknowledge the sense of profound loss and the absence of redemption that permeate the story's conclusion.
However, Wesibuch's interpretation of the work does lend itself to criticism. Admittedly, the cultural context that Weisbuch creates for Winterbourne allows us to gain a better idea of the phenomena that James may have been criticizing in his work. Yet, by putting so much effort into placing Winterbourne in a historical context, the more nonhistorical, transcendent messages of loss and failed redemption that Prof. Railton accentuated seem to be trivialized. Though parts of "Daisy Miller" surely criticize the bankrupt institution of culture worship, to over-contextualize the piece into an exceptionally creative piece of anthropology is a mistake. This interpretation neglects some of the ideas in "Daisy Miller" that connect it to some of the most common themes of modernist literature (loss, missed opportunities for redemption/rebirth). Yet, by downplaying Weisbuch's sometimes over-historical bent, Railton's and Weisbuch's interpretations of the text can complement each other nicely.