Christopher Newman's very name puts him squarely in the camp of adventurous heroes. He tells Noémie Nioche in Chapter One that he was named for the explorer and adventurer Christopher Columbus, and his last name suggests his roots as a man of Columbus's New World. Whereas Columbus set out from Europe to discover a so-called savage continent, however, Newman leaves that savage continent in search of Europe. Crossing back nearly four hundred years after his namesake, he finds a curious and unfamiliar world, riddled with odd habits, overdressed natives, and strange precious objects. He arrives hoping to find a woman to complete his fortune, much as the Spanish voyagers hoped to find gold. But whereas the conquistadors sought treasure to refill the coffers of a greedy and aging empire, Newman has built up his wealth from nothing and now seeks a worthy person on whom to spend it. His is the naïve hope of promised pleasure rather than the addict's reach for more—he has acquired wealth without a real sense of what wealth is for, and has come to Europe to experience the finer things in life and to benefit from a long cultural tradition of taste, superlatives, and judgment.
Yet the force of the story goes far beyond an innocent rediscovery of the past. Once in Europe, Newman finds himself wronged and betrayed by an aristocratic family and in possession of their murderous secret. When he destroys his evidence of their wrong and returns unceremoniously to America, he renounces not only his revenge but also the entire problematic world of European aristocracy and politicking. Both in revenge and in romance, Newman is a symbolic figure, not least because he is out of his element. The novel's title is his own, and directly mirrors the hereditary titles of his aristocratic peers. The narrator's insistence that Newman be a superlative American sets against its description of him as a reluctant patriot, American by nature and birth but not necessarily by blind creed. Newman embodies that essential paradox of James's Americanness, a mentality of which the most striking characteristic is a belief in the freedom of the individual. To be American by creed, indeed to define "American," would be to constrain the American's essential and defining freedom. Such self- definition can be simplistically contrasted to the Bellegarde credo of family glory and honor above all else, and in particular above the luxuries of individual liberty.
At times, Newman appears as a kind of folk hero, "nature's nobleman" whose direct questions and trueness to instinct expose the innate hypocrisy of the human enterprise. If Europe suffers from an overabundance of civilization, then Newman's naïve wanderings allow naturalized Europeans like Mrs. Tristram to meditate on the state of their empire. The novel is far from immediate on this point, however, dwelling instead on Newman's own deeply ambiguous response to Europe and on the more polarized views of Benjamin Babcock. Near the end of his summer journeys, Newman thinks how good it has been for him to see societies built on something besides money. James presents this thought not as an exoneration of the Continent, but as a recognition of the extremely complex forms taken by human desire. The American desire for wealth, in the person of Newman, is ultimately a desire for the satiety wealth brings and for the pleasure of the intrinsically superlative. The America of Newman's time, however, did not yet contain any storehouses of artistic treasure—no Louvre-like monuments, antique churches, elaborate symphonies, decadent wines—leaving his desire with no ultimate object. It is only when Newman completely renounces his desire at novel's end that he is free to return to America and to the pursuit—if not the indulgence—of happiness.
With Newman portrayed as the superlative American, the description of Valentin as Newman's ideal Frenchman sets the two men in sharp relief. Valentin and Newman are comrades, allies, foils, counterparts and fast friends. The force of their juxtaposition is to shift the focus of the novel away from some kind of banal struggle between good and evil: the real cross-cultural encounter happens through the pairing of Newman-Valentin rather than Newman-Bellegarde. The archetypal man of the Old World is not the scheming, megalomaniac Urbain, but his delightful, deeply human younger brother. Valentin admits that Newman is the only man he has ever caught himself wanting to be, and indeed Newman flirts with the thought of remaking Valentin as a banker in his own image. Likewise, Newman is deeply charmed by Valentin's charisma, witty conversation, and epicurean sensibilities, and by the time of Valentin's death has come to love him as a brother. On a certain level, Valentin's and Newman's affinity represents the best of both continents: the longing of the old world for the new world's strength and vigor, and the longing of the new world for the taste and culture of the old. But ultimately, Valentin cannot bring himself to join Newman in New York, nor can Newman understand the seemingly senseless ritual of Valentin's duel. Newman's and Valentin's mutual love, as well as their ultimate difference, allow the novel to negotiate the intercultural chasm without either polarizing its conflicts or collapsing its difference.
Valentin, whose name (especially in Newman's mispronunciation, "Valentine") invokes the patron saint of lovers, is the central agent and catalyst for much of the story. He is the messenger and staunch supporter of Newman's love for Claire, and his sister's truest admirer. Valentin neatly frames Newman's period of contact with Claire, appearing in the Bellegarde courtyard on Newman's first visit and dying immediately after Claire has renounced Newman's hand. Valentin is Newman's introduction to the family and his friendly advisor, as well as Claire's emissary and advocate. Thus, Newman's love for Claire is implicitly and inextricably a story of Valentin as well. In some sense, this follows directly from Valentin's textual role as representative of France, for Newman's European romance is the lens through which he makes sense of Paris. More broadly, however, the tragedy of Newman and Claire's lost love is bound up with the tragedy of Newman and Valentin's friendship. The friendship is one of mutual utility: Valentin will help Newman get Claire, and Newman will help Valentin effect his revenge. But soon enough Valentin and Claire are both lost and Newman gives up on retaliation. These two losses, both moral and tragic, are thus significantly linked.
Both Claire, through the idea of responsibility, and Valentin, through the idea of honor, express their implicit allegiance to a larger European society that the individualist Newman is at a loss to understand. It is this deep sense of honor that promotes Valentin from sympathetic epicurean into real romantic hero. Though Valentin is attracted to Noémie's ruthlessness and charm, he recognizes her folly, and duels Kapp only as a point of personal honor. It is this same sense of honor that leads Valentin to apologize on his deathbed to Newman for the family name and for the treachery of his mother and older brother. Just as Newman has an ingrained sense of fairness, Valentin has an unfailing sense of principle. Valentin is fundamentally aware of an action's symbolic value, reading the human drama on a figurative level and negotiating his place within it just as he would choose the perfect phrase in a coded conversation. Valentin's deathbed apology for his family is a prototypically formal gesture. The effect of the apology is somewhat lost on Newman, who does not read things symbolically. Yet when Newman recounts the apology to the Bellegardes, the effect is one of a physical blow. In the Bellegardes' world, as Valentin demonstrates, formal gestures take on a grave physical reality. We see such emphasis on form, object, and sacred gesture in Claire's despairing comparison of her family to a religion, a ritual code of conduct in which even the thought of deviance can be punishable by death. It is in this context that Valentin, master of symbolic language, chooses to end his life in the pure formalism of a duel.
When Newman first meets Noémie, she is hard at work copying Murillo's Madonna. It is not long before Newman realizes that Noémie is a copycat on a much larger scale, a poor girl whose goal is to be discovered and to marry well. But Noémie's art goes far beyond copying someone else's clothes, manners, or composition. She is a kind of second-order copyist, feigning interest in her socially acceptable simulations until the day arrives when she can play an original in her own right. She really has no interest in painting, and is not good at it, as she frankly admits to Newman at a later meeting. Noémie's delight is in the theatrics and performance of setting up shop in the Louvre, dabbing at the easel, and being sponsored by wealthy men. Put otherwise, she enjoys the pastime because it is allows her to be socially ambitious: she is willing to pretend almost anything in order to become the girl she believes she deserves to be. Yet her continual recourse to forgery, pretense, and simulation mark her ascent as a morally troubled one.
Noémie's cruelty, capriciousness, and self-involvement set her sharply against the gentle, self-sacrificing Claire. Whereas Claire is subject to an almost inhuman authority, sent unwillingly into marriage by her domineering mother and older brother, Noémie has long since brought her father to heel. While Claire gives up her claims to personal happiness in light of her father's suffering, Noémie uses Valentin's death to catapult herself to stardom. Because of their differences, the women serve as foils and narrative substitutes for each other. Noémie first attracts the attentions of Newman, who will subsequently fall in love with Claire. Noémie's most illustrious admirer is Valentin, Claire's beloved younger brother. At novel's end, Noémie winds up on the arm of Lord Deepmere, whom the Marquise has wanted Claire to marry.
At the same time, Noémie's actions and ambitions critically parallel many of the novel's important deeds and misdeeds. Her constant, almost self- destructive lust for adventure, success, and self-invention within the confines of poverty mirrors the bored young Marquise's quest for better parties, dancing, and gowns within the confines of the Bellegarde mansion. Both Noémie and the young Marquise initially turn to Newman as a potential savior, but recognize quickly that his odd scruples will prevent their having any real fun together. Furthermore, Noémie's willingness to expend Valentin in a duel for her own social advancement mirrors Madame de Bellegarde's murder of her husband for similar reasons, a parallel underscored by the textual emphasis on Valentin's similarity to his father. Similarly, Noémie's ill- fated relationship with Valentin may be read as a dark twist of the relationship between Newman and Claire. Noémie cares little for Valentin, enjoying his company more for what it represents than for any of his own essential qualities. Meanwhile, in a cynical sense we may see Newman's attraction to Claire as a desire for the superlative and unavailable, rather than for Claire's inimitable essence. After all, the narrator admits that Newman's delight in his prize fiancée increases each time an acquaintance is impressed. Yet the crux of Newman's and Claire's relationship rests on it being, after a certain point, a love story, and Newman's characteristic honesty and self-knowledge precludes an entirely opportunistic reading. By contrast, Noémie's total lack of remorse paints her as a beautiful—if tragic—meditation on the problems of ambition and its serious effects on human relationships.