Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The "Innocence" of Americans

February 18, 2009
Posted by Michael Fong
Journal #13
Henry James, "Daisy Miller: A Study"

"'Gracious me!' exclaimed Daisy. She looked again at Mr. Giovanelli, then she turned to Winterbourne. There was a little pink flush in her check; she was tremendously pretty. "Does Mr. Winterbourne think," she asked slowly, smiling, throwing back her head and glancing at him from head to foot, "that-to save my reputation-I ought to get into the carriage?' Winterbourne colored; for an instant he hesitated greatly. It seemed so strange to hear her speak that way of her 'reputation.' But he himself, in fact, must speak in accordance with gallantry. The finest gallantry, here, was simply to tell her the truth; and the truth, for Winterbourne, as the few indications I have been able to give have made him known to the reader, was that Daisy Miller should take Mrs. Walker's advice." (Henry James, "Daisy Miller: A Study")

The above quote takes place in James' "Daisy Miller" when Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker are desperately trying to convince Daisy that she should not accompany Mr. Giovanelli. They want to preserve her reputation, so to speak. Daisy ignores them, and proceeds to take her walk with Mr. Giovanelli.

Throughout the story, James seems to be siding with the perspective of Europeans: that Americans are loud, obstinate people who does not have the mental capacity to appreciate European culture. This could be seen from his portrayal of Randolph, Daisy's sister. But at the same time, I think that James is making an argument for the Americans too, in that they are "innocent". Daisy Miller is his alternate figure of Americans abroad. Her "innocence" is attributed, I think, to the fact that she is exposed for the first time to such social norms and from her view, restrictions. She has not been in the culture long enough to know what is perceived "right" and "wrong" by the society, and hence her refusal to accept the advice of Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker about the matter of walking with Mr. Giovanelli.

In a sense, I agree with James. The following example is something out of my own experience, in which the situation is pretty much similar. Since Hong Kong became a part of China again in 1997, tourists from mainland China increased greatly. All of a sudden, we have flocks of them taking photos at the Victoria Harbour, the Peak (both well-known tourist attractions), and many other places. They are extremely impolite people, I'm sorry to say. They know not how to queue up, they litter all over the place in public, and they are excruciatingly loud, even when talking to one another. Honestly, I must say that I did not like them at all. I then had the opportunity last year to visit China myself. My family and I went to Shanghai, a well-known city in China. Much to my surprise, the people appeared extremely civilized. They are polite, and a stark contrast with the tourists I see visiting Hong Kong. I was confused at that time, till I had the chance to leave the central "tourist area" and visit the genuine town areas of Shanghai. There, the people behaved in very much the same manner as the tourists in Hong Kong.

I began to realize that whenever one views another culture different, one is more prone to find faults rather than virtues. Like me, Mrs. Walker saw only the faults within Daisy, and want to correct them. But still, it must be realized that Daisy came from another culture, and that she is innocent of these so-called "faults" that she has. Similarly, the Chinese tourists, at least a portion of them, are accustomed to behave like this in their home country. Others may view them as loud and rude, but it is normal to them. The difference and contrast between two cultures is the main reason that Daisy is perceived as a common girl with no self respect.

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