Daisy Miller begins at the fashionable resort town of Vevey, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The narrator (who uses the first person, "I," but is never named) describes the bustling summer resort hotel of Trois Couronnes. The narrator mentions that Russian princesses sit in the garden, and also that American travelers are numerous in the summer months. He also mentions that the story begins "two or three years ago," or about 1875 (based on the publication of the story in 1878).
The narrator soon introduces Winterbourne, a young man lounging in the garden at this hotel. He has traveled to visit his aunt, Mrs. Costello, who has a headache this evening and is unable to visit with him. The narrator mentions that Winterbourne has been living in Geneva (importantly referred to as "the little metropolis of Calvinism") for some time, which is across the Lake from Vevey. There are several rumors that he has an interest in an older woman who lives there (though no American has seen this woman, and Winterbourne will later deny that she exists or that he has any romantic interests in Geneva).
Winterbourne sits at a table in the garden of the hotel, having a cigarette after enjoying a cup of coffee, when he spots a little boy. This little boy, seeing that Winterbourne has several lumps of sugar on his table, asks him for one. Winterbourne says yes, and the little boy takes three sugar lumps and begins to eat them. The boy mentions his mother, and also that he is an American. Winterbourne replies that he too is an American, and the boy's sister soon approaches. The young woman addresses the boy, and stands a little apart looking out over the lake. The boy, whose name is Randolph, mentions to his sister that Winterbourne is an American. The young lady ignores this and only briefly glances at Winterbourne. Winterbourne decides to take this opportunity to introduce himself, and stands up to do so. The narrator mentions that this is a socially bold thing to do, and that he wouldn't think about doing this in the more conservative Geneva. But her prettiness and her ambiguous attitude seem to spur him on, and he takes the chance.
The young woman takes little notice of Winterbourne's introduction. However, she doesn't seem shocked at his boldness either. Winterbourne stands and listens as Randolph and the young woman continue speaking. They mention something about going to Italy, and Winterbourne asks a direct question about that. She responds simply to Winterbourne's question, and then continues the conversation with Randolph. Winterbourne again tries to start conversation with her, discussing the view of Lake Geneva and the mountains (the Alps). He notices that she doesn't seem nervous or annoyed by the social risk he has taken, so he relaxes. He talks for a little while about the view. She starts to look at him, without shyness and without fear, but also without "immodesty." He muses on her manner for a little, mentioning that she might be a coquette. She begins talking back to him, asking about him and talking about herself a little. She mentions that she is from New York State. Winterbourne gets Randolph to say his name, and he gives his sister's name, too-Daisy Miller.
Winterbourne learns that her father is still in New York (Schenectady, to be exact), where he has a "big business." He contrives to get Daisy to sit on a bench near him, and they converse for some time about her family and her travels. She asks if he is a "real" American, and not a German posing as one. She mentions that she likes Europe except for the lack of "society," at least in Vevey. She seems to brag, for a minute, about the amount of society she has had. She makes the strange remark that she has always had a "great deal of gentleman's society." After this remark, Winterbourne again considers whether she is an innocent flirt or a designing, dangerous coquette. He mentions to himself (through the narrator) that he has encountered opinions about American women on both sides in similar cases, and that he has lost his instincts for such things. He seems to decide that she is just a pretty American flirt, mentions that she has the most charming nose he has ever seen, and wonders what the "regular conditions and limitations" are for dealing with an American flirt.
Daisy notices the castle nearby, Chateau de Chillon, and asks if Winterbourne has toured it. He replies that he has, and she mentions that she would like to see it. She says that she would like to go before she leaves Vevey, and that her mother would be unable to go. Winterbourne boldly proposes that he take her to the castle, and she seems to pause. He worries that he has gone too far and mentions that she should bring her mother, but Daisy seems to like the idea and asks if he was sincere. He says that he meant it. She mentions that her mother can stay with Randolph and Eugenio. Winterbourne asks who Eugenio is, and Daisy mentions that he is the courier, or the person hired to manage travel arrangements. Eugenio soon appears to tell Daisy and Randolph that lunch is served. Daisy tells Eugenio that she plans to go to the castle with Winterbourne. Eugenio seems to size up Winterbourne and makes a remark about Daisy's arrangements. Daisy turns to Winterbourne and asks for confirmation that he is staying at this hotel, that he is "really an American," and that he won't back out of the plan. Eugenio seems to look at Winterbourne disapprovingly, and Winterbourne offers to introduce Daisy to his aunt who, he says, can vouch for his character. On her departure, Winterbourne remarks to himself that she has the figure or "tournure" of a princess.
With his European education and genteel manners, Winterbourne represents a conservative American ideal of well-bred morality and values. His link with Geneva and with Calvinism suggests his adherence to a strict pattern of moral behavior, and it also connects him with the Calvinist idea of predestination and the elect, in which God decides at the beginning of time who will enter heaven and who will not. However, Winterbourne's behavior and his lack of any real career makes this link suspect. He seems quite willing to break the rules that he knows so well, and he seems to take the lead with Daisy in committing the social blunders of direct approach and unsupervised attention that he knows women like his aunt frown upon. If Daisy does anything wrong in this early encounter, it is a failure to break off her conversation with this stranger who seems to be quickly trying to establish a connection with her.
The most interesting part about Daisy, though, is the strange ambiguity that she seems to represent. Her remark about the quantity of gentlemanly company she had in New York could be taken as the bragging of a coquette proud of her conquests. Winterbourne could be easily fooled because of a strong desire to be in this beautiful young woman's company, and he might be the victim of manipulation rather than the one doing the manipulating. The episode involving the plans to visit the castle could be read in either way-it is unclear who should be blamed for this indiscretion.
Daisy Miller: Summary