American Women in Europe: the morality, psychology and sexuality of Daisy Miller and Tender is the Night

The narrative fiction of the late 19th and early 20th century demonstrated a marked shift from traditional plot-driven social realism towards a more nuanced form of psychological realism. This global trend was clearly present in the American literature of the period, and also coincided with an influx of freshly wealthy American citizens holidaying and living in Europe with their new money and attitudes. Although occurring before the modern feminism of the mid-20th century, this period also represented a marked shift from the restrictions of Victorian England and European codes of behaviour towards increased economic and sexual freedom for women, particularly in America. Both Daisy Miller and Tender is the Night are works which, though written by men and preoccupied with their male protagonists, also use the subtle techniques of psychological realism to portray the complex moral and sexual challenges faced by American women abroad in Europe.

The protagonists of Daisy Miller and Tender is the Night are Frederick Winterbourne and Dick Diver respectively. While Henry James chose Daisy for the title of his novella, the first person narrator privileges Winterbourne’s perspective, and it is his interest in a “very clever foreign lady” (James 284) that concludes the book. A similar pattern can be detected in Tender is the Night which, although beginning in Book One with Rosemary’s perspective, is focused heavily on her pursuit of Dick and ultimately ends with Dick running away from scandals “in one town or another” (Fitzgerald 344). McNicholas writes that “the principal female characters in Tender is the Night exist primarily as sources of delight and admiration, and/or forces of destruction in terms of the influence they have upon, or the power they wield over, Dick Diver” (41). While this is true, it’s certainly also true that both Rosemary and Nicole are deeply psychologised characters, and that Daisy functions as more than a plot device and symbol of American innocence abroad.

Ohmann writes that “James began writing with one attitude towards his heroine and concluded with a second and different attitude towards her” (2). Daisy is portrayed as an innocent flirt, largely oblivious to the judgements of society, and this symbolises both an emerging American class and, as Johnson writes, a compelling feminist “counter-narrative of American womanhood defined by freedom despite social constraints” (41). While women still live within particular social constraints and James punishes Daisy with death, “her moments of defiance linger long after the sting of her death subsides” (Johnson 42), and Winterbourne himself comes to realise “he has wronged Daisy” (Ohmann 5) because he has “lived too long in foreign parts” (James 284). There is a complexity to James’ portrayal of Daisy that eschews traditional morality tales and reveals truths about this period of late 19th century history.

Published over fifty years after Daisy Miller, Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night shows further feminist progress for American women, particularly in the character of Rosemary. On the surface, Rosemary is a temptress who “plays her game cautiously, deliberately, with Dick slowly but surely slipping into her trap” (McNicholas 60). Unlike Daisy, Rosemary is acting with forethought, a high degree of independent agency and the support of her mother. As a movie star, she is able to act in this way without harsh judgement, as Mrs Speers observes, “whatever happens it can’t spoil you because economically you’re a boy, not a girl” (Fitzgerald 49). Similarly to James, however, Fitzgerald resists the temptation to use Rosemary purely as a flat plot device to come between Dick and Nicole; throughout Book One, Nicole’s beauty is seen admiringly through Rosemary’s perspective. Rosemary’s morality—or lack thereof—is, like Daisy’s, a function of the social context of a changing America, and portrayed with more grey than black or white.

Psychologically, however, both Daisy and Rosemary are relatively flat characters. Daisy’s thoughts are revealed mostly through her actions and dialogue. As Ohmann writes, “Daisy often speaks in the language of extravagant, if unoriginal, enthusiasm” and “in an idiom that is homely and matter-of-fact. When Winterbourne asks, ‘Your brother is not interested in ancient monuments?’ she rejects his formal phrasing and says simply, ‘He says he don’t care much about old castles’” (3). In addition to her speech, Daisy is primarily revealed by how others perceive her. Winterbourne, while captivated by Daisy, with “the most charming nose he had ever seen” (James 208), also dismisses her as “very unsophisticated” and “a pretty American flirt” (James 208). While Daisy is portrayed with a level of subtlety, she still largely exists as an object of desire, and her inner truth is only revealed by her language and what others think about her; the reader has no direct access to her thoughts.

Rosemary is a more fully developed character than Daisy, because the third person omniscient narrator provides the reader with access to her thoughts and motivations. However, this seems largely to be a means of providing readers with our initial impressions of Dick and Nicole. Rosemary is the ideal focaliser for the beginning of Tender is the Night, allowing us to observe Dick, Nicole and their marriage through her eyes. Haegert contends that while “we are initially confined to the limited point of view of the seventeen-year-old Rosemary”, “other, less favourable ‘impressions’ of [Dick’s] character soon begin to form” until, “as the book unfolds … our view of Dick acquires independent force” (3). Rosemary falls for Dick and admires Nicole, but also provides an early sense of foreboding as she wonders “what Mrs Mckisco had seen in the bathroom” (Fitzgerald 48) and hints of Nicole’s mental illness begin to emerge.

Nicole is the deepest and most convincingly portrayed female character in these books. Tender is the Night begins in medias res and Book One privileges Rosemary’s perspective on Dick and Nicole, but Book Two provides the background of their marriage and particularly of Nicole’s mental illness. Haegert writes that “it is mistaken to reduce Nicole herself to a mere social stereotype or economic symbol. Despite her apparent triviality and possessiveness, her character is considerably more complex and her life essentially more tragic than … critics have allowed” (6). Nicole’s complexity is particularly revealed in the epistolary and first person sections of Book Two, which provide direct access to her thoughts.

Fitzgerald psychologises Nicole through a Freudian lens, examining “the dangers of the doctor-patient relationship (transference-love)” (Cokal 77) and using a breakdown of traditional linear narrative structure “in favor of a thematic structure that places events in a chain of association with small regard for time” (Cokal 84). The shift from the linear structure of Book One into the flashbacks and first person narration of Nicole’s thoughts in Book Two are reflective of Nicole’s own mental state. In Book Three, as their marriage disintegrates, it becomes clear that Nicole can only recover once she is free of Dick, her transferred father figure. As Tommy and Dick argue over her, she feels like a ball being tossed between them, and reflects that “she had not existed for a long time, even as a ball” (Fitzgerald 301). There is no hint that Nicole’s mental illness continues after their divorce; instead the book ends with Dick’s scandals, flitting from town to town, an ending that also evokes James’ Winterbourne in Daisy Miller.

Both Daisy Miller and Tender is the Night reflect a trend towards psychological realism, and present a realistic representation of their cultural moment, as the New World of America and the Old World of Europe collide. While the narratives are most concerned with their male protagonists, and even reveal some misogynistic tendencies from their authors, they also portray varying levels of rounded, independent female characters, and illuminate the moral, sexual and psychological challenges they face as American women abroad in Europe.

Works Cited

Cokal, Susann. “Caught in the Wrong Story: Psychoanalysis and Narrative Structure in ‘Tender is the Night’.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 47.1 (2005): 75. Web. 14Th June 2013.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender is the Night. London: Vintage Random House, 2010. Print.

Haegert, John. “Repression and counter-memory in ‘Tender is the Night’.” Essays in Literature 21.1 (1994): 97. Web. 14Th June 2013.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller. London: Minster Classics, 1968. Print.

Johnson, Lisa. “Daisy Miller: Cowboy Feminist.” The Henry James Review 22.1 (2001): 41-58. Web. 14Th June 2013.

McNicholas, Mary Verity. “Fitzgerald’s Women in ‘Tender is the Night’.” College Literature 4.1 (1977): 40-70. Web. 14Th June 2013.

Ohmann, Carol. “Daisy Miller: A Study of Changing Intentions.” American Literature 36.1 (1964): 1-11. Web. 14Th June 2013.

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