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Valentin de Bellegarde

Valentin de Bellegarde

Valentin de Bellegarde

Valentin de Bellegarde

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.

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