The American

by: Henry James

Important Quotations Explained

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.