Newman was silent awhile. "Well, I want a great woman. I stick to that. That's one thing I can treat myself to, and if it's to be had I mean to have it. What else have I toiled and struggled for all these years? I've succeeded, and now what am I to do with my success? To make it perfect, as I see it, there must be a lovely being perched on the pile like some shining statue crowning some high monument...I want, in a word, the best article in the market."
This excerpt from a conversation around the Tristrams' Parisian dinner table in the middle of Chapter 3 explicitly defines one motivating force of the story. American Christopher Newman, aged forty-two, has made a substantial amount of money in business and now seeks a wife to crown his fortune. In this passage, Newman admits this wish to Tom and Lizzie Tristram, an unhappily married American couple. When Mrs. Tristram replies that her childhood friend Claire de Cintré is the perfect woman for Newman, Newman's epic quest to be accepted by the Bellegarde family begins. It is the first of many bits of seminal advice from Mrs. Tristram, Newman's social guide and first real friend in Paris.
On a certain level, Newman's request comes across as impossibly vulgar. The idea that a wife should simply be the top item in a list of desired objects grates against any idea of fine romantic sensibility. However, Newman's extended discussion with the Tristrams on the subject, and indeed his comportment throughout the novel, paints him as anything but crude. Newman wants a wife whom the world will esteem, but he is ready to be her greatest admirer. He wants someone he can protect, love, and shower with gifts, someone who will justify his great accumulation of wealth. Needless to say, such people do not come easily. Newman's search for the "best article in the market" is less an objectification of this woman than it is a caricature of his capitalist roots and an expression of his faith that superlative goodness, perfection, and beauty are objective criteria. Newman enlists his friends' help in the search because he trusts their judgment. His request is an honest one, in line with his admitted ignorance of art and music. After all, with a particularly American flourish, Newman has come to Europe to experience the best of everything, and is ready to employ experts to help him find it. Despite his rhetoric, Newman ultimately appears not elitist but curious—a businessman who wants to know exactly what can be had at what price before making his choice, a cautious man who wants to take no chances with the love of his life.
But the moment, and the glance that lived in it, had been sufficient to relieve Newman of the first and last fit of sharp personal embarrassment he was ever to know. He performed the movement frequent with him and which was always a symbol of his taking mental possession of a scene—he extended his long legs. The impression his hostess had made on him at their first meeting came back in an instant; it had been deeper than he knew. She took on a light and a grace, or, more definitely, an interest; he had opened a book and the first lines held his attention.
This passage, from the beginning of Chapter 6, describes Newman's second, symbolic encounter with Claire de Cintré, who has been billed as the most perfect woman. Having met Claire briefly at Mrs. Tristram's house one afternoon, Newman tried to call on her but was stopped by her snide older brother Urbain. On Mrs. Tristram's advice, Newman spends the summer traveling, haunted by an image of Claire's intense gaze. Returning to Paris, Mrs. Tristram counsels Newman to try again. This time, Newman is allowed in, and his initial moment of panic at the absurdity of the situation quickly gives way to a feeling of ease and peace. The instrument of liberation is Claire's glance, attesting to the broader importance of sight and gaze in the novel. This glance, Claire's second, brings with it all the sensory memories of the first gaze the previous spring. Earlier, Mrs. Tristram has praised Claire so highly that Newman begins to feel he can already trust her—a closeness we see in the last two sentences of this passage. The first few lines of Claire's story make an arresting image, even if we already know that the novel ends in the blank page of the convent wall.
At the same time, the passage's last image is a fitting metaphor for the larger narrative. The image of a book that begins well is, unsurprisingly, placed near the beginning of the novel itself. In a similar vein, Valentin, some weeks later, tells Newman that the Bellegardes are fit for a novel. The self-reference is deeper than it first appears: when Newman declares his love to Claire, he tells her that he has known her to be perfect from the beginning, and though time may make this knowledge more profound it will not qualitatively change it. This is simultaneously an honest admission of Newman's love and a clever meditation on the novel's larger structure. Indeed, the novel's basic plot is given in the first few chapters, with Newman's story of his formative event in New York and his declaration to get a wife. The novel is not fundamentally a murder mystery, a suspense, or even a true drama, but instead an extended meditation on the depths of characters who were honestly presented from the beginning. Under pressure, the characters respond in eloquent, forceful, tragic, and unsurprising ways. In other words, surprise is not the point: just as a love story gains force not from the fact of love but from its expression and course, The American is remarkable for the extraordinary ways in which the characters play out their roles to each other and to the narrative, and for its deeply humane assessment of the cause, effect, and cost of such obedience.
Madame de Cintré rose quickly and grasped his arm. "Ah Valentin, what do you mean to do?"
"To show Mr Newman the house. It will be very amusing to show Mr Newman the house....It's full of curious things. Besides a visit like Mr Newman's is just what it wants and has never had. It's a rare chance all round."
"You're very wicked, brother," Madame de Cintré insisted.
This quotation comes from the middle of Chapter 6 during Newman's first successful visit to the Bellegarde mansion, wherein he is invited to join Claire and Valentin around the fire. In response to Newman's innocent conversation, Valentin, with a twinkle in his eye, offers to show Newman around. Claire manages to prevent the excursion by ordering tea, to Valentin's evident disappointment. Valentin and Claire's family, the House of Bellegarde, is metaphorically linked with its eponymous residence throughout the novel. The suggested tour is symbolic of Valentin's larger plot to use Newman to shake things up in the dull world of pedigrees and politics. As the younger and more rebellious son, Valentin would like to cause trouble for his mother the Marquise and older brother Urbain—the family elders—in return for what he suspects was the murder of his beloved father some years earlier at Fleurières. Newman's declaration of love for Claire soon provides exactly the opportunity Valentin wants. In the case of Claire's courtship, Valentin is honest with Newman about the fact that he will get his own pleasure from Newman's tour of the family. Though he sees Newman as an object of potential retribution, Valentin has by then come to view him as a great comrade, collaborator, and true friend.
Meanwhile, Claire is frightened and worried by Valentin's hints of revenge. Though she loves and adores Valentin, she is terrified of her mother and of Urbain and simply wants to escape their influence. Though Mrs. Bread also suspects foul play at Fleurières, she later guesses that Claire was too afraid to find out more. Though Newman sees Claire as gentle, perfect, and good, Claire admits to him that she is no heroine, nor is she brave. Her sudden check of Valentin's mischief in this passage is a knee-jerk attempt to protect the brother she loves. In the Bellegardes' environment of endless dinners, gaudy parties, and institutionalized terror, Claire wants only peace. Though the meeting is auspicious—Newman will soon become great friends with Valentin and fall in love with Claire—Newman cannot possibly read the subtext, quoted here, of Valentin's and Claire's exchange. Yet it is a subtext that will haunt the rest of the siblings' lives.
"There's something in your situation that rubs me up. You're the first man about whom I've ever found myself saying 'Oh, if I were he—!' ... It's a sort of air you have of being imperturbably, being irremovably and indestructibly (that's the thing) at home in the world. When I was a boy my father assured me it was by just such an air that people recognized a Bellegarde. He called my attention to it. He didn't advise me to cultivate it; he said that as we grew up it always came of itself. I supposed it had come to me because I think I've always had the feeling it represents. My place in life had been made for me and it seemed easy to occupy. But you who, as I understand it, have made your own place, you who, as you told us the other day, have made and sold articles of vulgar household use—you strike me, in a fashion of your own, as a man who stands about at his ease and looks straight over ever so many high walls. I seem to see you move everywhere like a big stockholder on his favourite railroad. And yet the world used to be supposed to be ours. What is it I miss?"
This passage in the middle of Chapter 7 is part of the first extended conversation between Newman and Valentin. Claire, deducing that Valentin made a poor impression during Newman's first visits with his oblique hints of exploration, has exhorted Valentin to call on Newman and make amends. The two men take an immediate liking to each other and spend much of the night talking. Well past midnight, Valentin remarks that he envies Newman's liberty and his freedom to come and go. Valentin, as a Bellegarde, has been raised in situations of the utmost propriety—tutored, primped, tailored and confined past the patience of any good soul. In the course of a comparative discussion of their situations, Valentin pays Newman the extraordinary compliment recounted in this passage. The honesty and intimacy of the speech, despite the men having only just met, is a testament to the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
The quotation is particularly poignant coming from a man whose family ultimately rejects Newman as a candidate for their daughter's hand on the grounds that he is not one of them. This loss leaves Newman with the one "high wall" he cannot climb: that of Claire's convent in the Rue d'Enfer. Meanwhile, by Newman's hearth and in contrast to his family's views, Newman's honesty, industry and quiet self-confidence appear to Valentin as graces of the highest order. Though he is not of noble blood, Newman nonetheless retains the mark of an inherent aristocracy, freed from the stigma of pedigrees and oppression and instead retaining a sense of genuine personal greatness. Soon, Claire is drawn to Newman's clear, ambient strength just as Valentin is. More subtly, Valentin's diagnosis of Newman's "air" is a troubling counter to the usual aristocratic myths of superiority. By Valentin's argument, French aristocrats look for unmistakable physical signs of their own—a typical habit of ruling classes who want to justify their political seizure of power with a physical basis for superiority. A telltale mark of aristocracy discovered in an American capitalist represents a significant blow to this elitist mentality. Though Newman accepts Valentin's words as simply a compliment, their resonance, irony, and clever preemption of the Bellegardes' ultimate acts are wasted neither on Valentin nor on us as readers.
He mused a great deal on Madame de Cintré—sometimes with a dull despair that might have seemed a near neighbor to detachment. He lived over again the happiest hours he had known - that silver chain of numbered days... He had yet held in his cheated arms, he felt, the full experience, and when he closed them together round the void that was all they now possessed, he might have been some solitary spare athlete practicing restlessly in the corridor of the circus.
Here, at the beginning of Chapter 26, the narrator describes Newman's attempts in London to come to terms with the loss of Claire. In the short space of a year, Newman has felt the most intense love and the most complete devastation of his worldly forty-three years. At the eleventh hour, his fiancée, the impossibly aristocratic Claire de Cintré, has broken off their engagement under family pressure and fled to a convent. Now, Newman has left Paris for London to try and make sense of what has happened and to mourn alone. As time passes, he begins to calm down, resigning himself to a certain sense of loss. His self-enforced isolation mirrors Claire's across the Channel. Free of the immediate, overwhelming grip of emotion, Newman begins to think more clearly about what has happened.
The simple eloquence of the passage's last metaphor suggests the magnitude of the changes wrought by sorrow. In the novel's first pages, Newman is described as a natural athlete, someone whose strength and stamina come intuitively. Newman never makes a point to exercise or practice; instead, he prefers to live fully in the moment, rather than in anticipation and rehearsal. Here, in the novel's last pages, the force of grief has been to knock Newman out of his perpetual present into the realms of loss and memory. His "practicing," the reverse of the athlete's, is not expectant but reminiscent—a ritual reconstruction of the gestures of happiness. It serves not as preparation but instead as a continual reminder of what once was and now is missing. Indeed, Newman's physical act of creating a circle with his arms and meditating on the emptiness they contain is a powerful symbol for the way that wounded human beings constantly force themselves to confront their own loss. Rejecting the usual cultural apparatus of mourning or the sympathy of others, Newman chooses instead a lone room in a foreign city, where his body continually insists that he remember.