In both the stories Benito Cereno and Daisy Miller, the protagonist is an American. He also has had some familiarity of his environment, but not enough not to make him less of a stranger. This identity is beneficial, as the United States is psychologically set apart from the traditions of Old Europe, and even that of Spanish America. The protagonists suddenly become pioneers, in their attempts to discover more of their immediate strange and unfamiliar territory. This “New World” effect is more enhanced as outside of the limited perspective of the protagonist, the author carefully and quietly arranges appropriate symbolisms of object, expression and style to give a subtle reference to the traditions, American for Henry Melville, and European for Henry James.
The immediately recognizable symbolism seen by the protagonists in Benito Cereno and Daisy Miller is represented through the symbolism of object. These are embodied in concrete landmarks that have deeper context in their respective traditions. In 19th century America, in Benito Cereno the landmark was the ship of the Spaniard, the San Dominick. The ship embodies the restless, pioneering spirit, which first brought Europe in contact with the Indians of the Americas; it later becomes the lifeblood of the European colonizers, particularly the Spanish, in the form of the Galleon Trade and the Slave Trade. It is therefore noteworthy that San Dominick represents both institutions in its housing both treasure and African slaves (Melville, 140).
Henry James’ Daisy Miller depicts the landmarks as the landscape of the mountains across the Vevey lake, the Chateau de Chillon, and the Colosseum. The castle represents the hundreds that dot Europe’s country, having been once the social and cultural centers from Medieval times even to the 18th century, when ruling families and aristocrats reigned in lavish palaces and mansions. The Alpine mountains are a sight common in southern Europe: from Switzerland, Italy, southern Germany and Austria, and is reminiscent of its kin west in the form of the Pyrenees. The use of French, from terminology to architecture, represents the dominant influence of the French since the Enlightenment, and the imagery of Rome—from cobbled streets to Colosseum likewise symbolize the preservation of Europe’s antiquity throughout its reverting to contemporary times.
The fear depicted in both works, meanwhile, are symbols of expressions that, in their descriptions, also indicate the respective mindsets of the peoples of those times: for instance, in the period of Benito Cereno, the threat of piracy was a very real danger encountered by any captain. The ship was the lifeblood of trade between nations, and in Spain’s case between Empire and colonies. Captain Delano’s spasms of panic at the possibility of the Saint Dominick crew being pirates were understandable.
Social etiquette was at the center of the “gentleman’s world” in European social circles. The fears were more directed at what harmed this “social order”: scandal. Thus, in Daisy Miller, the growing fear in Daisy’s open associations with men of questionable character was that it fomented a scandal among social circles, as behavior that openly defied social norms.
Discrimination also plays a substantial role in the fears, which feeds off the protagonists. Captain Delano’s worries are fed by the liberal actions of the Spanish captain towards the various incidences pointing to the African’s seeming “equality” with the Spaniard—the unpunished abuse by a slave boy towards a Spanish counterpart, the reactions of two slaves upon the brusque action of one Spaniard and the treatment of the African slave-prince Atufal’s defiance (Melville, 166). Winterbourne’s fears are borne from the disapproving observations of the women of Daisy’s associations, as is described in Daisy Miller, as well as her habit of going out at night with a total stranger—once attempted with Winterbourne, then actually acted on with Giovanelli.
The symbolism of structure and style is one that can be discovered after the second and third reading. It gives the reader an indication of whether, like the American tradition, the narrative is one linear and direct and practical or uses subtle undertones, as is done in European cultures. In Benito Cereno, the paranoia of Captain Delano grows through different images: the sight of the Ashantee slaves with their hatchets (Melville, 161), the comings and goings of members of the Spanish crew (151, 153), and the hushed conversations of his host and the African aide (153). When the ruse is finally discovered, the resolution is swiftly conveyed through an American expedition (189-192).
In contrast, European literal tradition is more reflective and focuses on the varying subtleties of movement and speech. The resolution, then, is less clear if the layers of meanings of the scenes that preceded it was not easily understood. It was therefore, in Daisy Miller, through the careful study of the exchange of words between Winterbourne and Daisy in Chateau de Chillon leading to her sudden change in demeanor, her unforgiving chidings of Winterbourne in Rome of his final words to her in Vevey, and the confrontation between them in the Colosseum, could the tragic final scenes be clearly understood.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.
James, Henry. “Daisy Miller”. Daisy Miller by Henry James. February 2001, Project Gutenberg, 02 May 2002