Both Daisy Miller by Henry James and The Age of Innocence, based on the novel by Edith Wharton are either social commentaries or love stories set in corrupt society. The male leads, Newland Archer and Winterbourne, help to show, assuming the goal is commentary, the dishonest and frivolous nature of society. Newland and Winterbourne’s stories and characters run on corresponding motives, as they are the offspring of that society.
Each character has an affair. Winterbourne’s is subtle, presented more as his single interest, but it is told that his presence in Geneva (at both the beginning and end of the novel) is for the purpose of “’studying,’” but “when certain persons spoke of him they affirmed that the reason of his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there—a foreign lady—a person older than himself (Part I.)” As Winterbourne is “extremely devoted,” then his time with Daisy must be considered an affair, whether or not it amounted to anything more than flirtation. Newland’s affair is more obvious, as both May, his wife, and Ellen, his secret love, play major roles in the story.
However, it is difficult to assign blame to either man for his affair, for each is a paragon gentleman who cares deeply about the honor of the women in his life. Winterbourne is bound by his gentleman’s manners to preserve the societal position of Daisy. In Part II, when Daisy is walking on the streets of Rome with two gentlemen, Winterbourne shows that he does care for Daisy’s honor:
“’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. He looked at her exquisite prettiness, and then he said, very gently, ‘I think you should get into the carriage.’”
Winterbourne is compelled, by both his strange sense of compassion for Daisy and his “gallantry” to make sure that he gives Daisy the best possible advice. Newland, too, takes great pains to maintain his wife’s honor, as Ellen says:
“’Didn't you talk to me, here in this room, about sacrifice and sparing scandal because my family was going to be your family? And I did what you asked me. For May's sake. And for yours…I had nothing to fear from that letter. Absolutely...