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Motifs

Motifs

Parables, Episodes, and Anecdotes

The American is peppered with anecdotes and episodes, self-contained stories the novel's characters tell about the world outside. Outside can mean both beyond the narrative scope of the novel (as when Newman tells Tom Tristram about his formative experience in New York several months before the novel begins) or outside its current geographic range (as when Mrs. Tristram writes Newman in America to tell him what has occurred in Europe). Such episodes can be charming or whimsical, as when Newman and Valentin stay up nights trading stories of wilderness adventure and loose women. They can be tragic or melancholy, as when M. Nioche tells Newman about his unfaithful wife or Valentin tells Newman about Claire's first wedding. The stories encompass both public knowledge—stories that could be told by many people besides their de facto narrator—and the deepest of secrets, as in Mrs. Bread's story of the Marquis' murder. Such passages prevent the story's narrator from having a monopoly on the story's truth, or from being bearing full responsibility for Newman's European assimilation. Instead, a range of characters communicate clues to Newman in a process of gradual revelation that mimics the usual process of acclimating to a foreign culture, by gradually making sense of natives' guidance. Such a pervasiveness of anecdotes is also appropriate for a story whose truth, ultimately, resides on the level of human beings. The American is as much a patchwork of characters as it is of narratives, in which questions of personal independence are filtered through freedom of speech, control of others revolves around control of information, and the sharing of stories is a critical kind of intimacy.

Physical Travel and Emotional Displacement

The characters' frequent journeys, spontaneous travel, physical motions, gestures, and otherwise bodily movements are important expressions of their thoughts and emotions. Newman's extended voyage to England and America following the breakup of his engagement is a prime example. The distance and duration of travel, as well as the superlative effort Newman puts into the voyage, attest to the magnitude of his wish that things return to normal. Claire's distress about the broken engagement and her fear of confronting her own desires and the secrets of her family translate first into a flight to Fleurières and then into a flight to the convent. More directly, Babcock confesses in his letter to Newman that his philosophical differences with Newman necessitate their taking physical leave of each other. Noémie's real, surprising success in the social world—"how far she has come"—is nicely mirrored by the actual distance from Paris to London she has traveled before Newman sees her with Lord Deepmere. Valentin's distance from his family is reflected in his keeping a second set of apartments, across the river from the Bellegarde mansion and fortuitously located near Newman's rooms. Finally, Newman's two traumatic experiences in the novel—the early decision to renounce his business revenge and Claire's decision to renounce him—are followed by spontaneous daytrips out of New York and Paris respectively, a multilevel attempt to get away from it all.

Formalism and Ritual vs. Spontaneity and Directness

For the straightforward Newman, the Bellegardes' rituals are sociologically fascinating but bizarrely intricate. Invited to the Bellegarde house for dinner, Newman feels uncharacteristically ill at ease, unsure of what to do, when, how, or why. His hosts keep conversation strictly to safe topics, making it more properly a ritual act than an exchange of ideas. Newman, however, fails to see the necessity of the ceremony that underlies the family's extended announcement that they have agreed to consider him as a candidate for Claire's hand. Newman's response to such occasions is usually either to remain quiet or—despite the prevailing atmosphere of formalism—to be very direct. Repeatedly, in the European context, Newman's straightforward approach garners respect, surprise, and often good results. Indeed, for much of the novel it seems as if Newman's no-nonsense methods compare favorably with the endless mix of nuance and politics in which many would-be plans get stuck.

But for all the novel's support of Newman's honest, direct, and at times childish innocence, James clearly sees value in formal gestures. After all, the novel itself is fairly stylized genre, of which James's wonderfully framed, well-crafted, highly structured narratives are a superlative example. If symbol and symbolic gesture are at times opaque, they are also deeply important to human life and relationships. As speakers of languages much richer than utility would imply, human interaction critically depends on the way in which information is presented. Though directness and formality are easily caricatured in Newman and Madame de Bellegarde, respectively, the ultimate fate of these characters no more condemns formalism than it condemns Europe, or matriarchy, or any other class to which the Marquise belongs. The novel's interest ultimately lies not simply in the tools its characters use, but their motives, skills, and desires—that is, the uses to which those tools are put.

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The American (SparkNotes Literature Guide)