The Moral Premise of “Daisy Miller: A Study”

            Last Saturday, I attended a screenwriting conference led by Dr. Stanley Williams, a Hollywood “script doctor” who argues in his book The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success that a film can succeed only if its “moral premise” aligns with Natural Law. By “succeed,” he meant “brings in big bucks at the box office”; since movies that connect with people on an emotional and psychological level tend to make the most money in theatres, he thinks the box office is a good source of data about how much a film resonates with its audience. By “Natural Law,” he means the basic rules that govern the universe—“cause and effect relationships that never change.” For example, in the physical realm, gravity is a cause and effect relationship that never changes: if you drop something, it will fall to the ground, every time. In the psychological realm—which is more important for storytelling—virtue leads to reconciliation and life, while vice leads to destructive relationships and death.

            How does this show up in the great stories? Every story is told on two levels: psychological and physical. In every story, the psychological reality effects the physical reality. In a story that adheres to Natural Law, a vice leads to a physical detriment, and a virtue leads to a physical betterment. A statement that expresses the effects of virtue and vice in a story is its MPS, or “moral premise statement.” For example, A Beautiful Mind’s MPS is “Depending only on others for our well-being leads to impotency, but taking responsibility for our well-being leads to productivity.” A film like Macbeth would have a tragic MPS: “Disregarding one’s loyalty to family and authority figures leads to destroyed relationships, and selfishly killing all who oppose one’s rise to power leads to madness and death.” Macbeth and Lady Macbeth act out the moral premise’s first clause in the play’s first half, and the moral premise’s second clause in the play’s second half. Get the idea? The MPS for Star Wars: Episode Six could be “Bitterness and hatred lead to defeat, but forgiveness and love leads to redemption and victory.”  But for the tragic Episode Three, the MPS might be “Fear leads to secrecy and betrayal, and trying to control the universe leads to physical destruction and death.”

            I’ve been wanting to analyze some literary works with this point of view ever since. So today, I’m going to look at Henry James’ Daisy Miller: A Study as Dr. Williams would. I’ve been asked the question, “Of which character is Daisy Miller a study: Daisy or Winterbourne?” I propose that one could answer the question by determining the story’s moral premise—although a moral premise must apply to all the characters in a story, it generally shows up in one main character’s plot arc.

            But before we get to Daisy Miller’s moral premise, I should define “study.” A “study” seems to be a systematic, scientific process of objective observation and reflection of a particular subject. So throughout the story, Winterbourne “studies” Daisy: he repeatedly observes and reflects on her attitudes, conversation, and behaviors, trying to determine whether or not she is anything for than a “pretty American flirt.”[1]  This would imply that Daisy Miller is a study of Daisy. The story is, after all, named after Daisy; and Winterbourne is rather droll for a point of view character. Daisy must be the protagonist, and hence, the object of James’ study. But is she? Everything we know about Daisy—her attitudes, conversation, and behaviors—we get from Winterbourne’s point of view. And his point of view does not seem completely objective. Although he has “a great relish for feminine beauty” and is “addicted to observing and analyzing it,” he is a twenty-seven-year-old man. I doubt he has the ability to be thoroughly objective about a pretty young girl; as James notes, “Winterbourne had lost his instinct in this matter [what to think about Daisy Miller], and his reason could not help him.”[2]  

            So if Winterbourne is not the one doing the objective studying, who is? Probably Henry James. And who does James study? Probably Winterbourne. James gives us the most insight into Winterbourne, his protagonist—we not only see Winterbourne’s actions with every character, but we also see the thoughts, attitudes, and reflections that cause his actions.

            To back up this assertion, let’s return to the idea of a “moral premise.” Daisy Miller, a young American woman, travels to Rome with her family; breaks the societal rules by being lively, friendly, independent, and adventurous; and catches a fatal case of Roman fever while visiting the Colosseum at night. If she were the main character, the tragic MPS would be something like, “Being an independent, innocent, lively American in Europe leads to rejection, and insisting on being yourself leads to death.” But that can’t be true! Innocence—a virtue, cannot lead to death. That’s against Natural Law. If an MPS based on Daisy’s character contradicts Natural Law, then Daisy can’t be the main character.

            What if Winterbourne were the main character? If he were, then the MPS might be “Curiosity about an innocent and unusual person leads to friendship, but manipulating or exploiting an innocent person leads to death.” Unlike the MPS based on Daisy’s character, an MPS constructed from Winterbourne’s character adheres to Natural Law: virtue leads to something good, and vice leads to something bad.

            So then Daisy Miller is a study of Winterbourne—the study of an American who has “lived too long in foreign parts”[3]; who has a chance to recover his American identity through his relationship with Daisy, but chooses to condemn her as “a young lady whom a gentleman need no longer be in pains to respect.”[4] His tragic choice to condemn Daisy leads to her physical death and Winterbourne’s psychological death.  Now that’s a true moral premise.


[1] Henry James, “Daisy Miller: A Study,” in The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels 93-152 (New York: Signet Classics, 1995), 102.

[2] Ibid., 102.

[3] Ibid., 152.

[4] Ibid., 148.

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Filed under Being a Bookworm, Torrey Honors Institute

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