The American

by: Henry James

Important Quotations Explained

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.