The American

by: Henry James

Chapters 1–2


In this opening scene, we observe what is either Newman's first success or his first mistake. He agrees to acquire Noémie's painting and manages to communicate his terms perfectly, but does so at a substantially inflated price. Newman's first word, "Combien?" (How much?) marks him as a no-nonsense capitalist and man of action, intent on conducting a business transaction despite his limited French. Newman's question, which dispenses with ceremony altogether, sets the American passion for business starkly against the French aristocratic conception of commerce as vulgar. This critical juxtaposition of value and value judgments recurs throughout the novel. In the European context, wealth—as the airs of the expatriate Tom Tristram suggest—is something to be enjoyed rather than made. Among Europeans, the trappings of wealth can even be assumed in wealth's absence, as evinced by the sorrowful figure of Monsieur Nioche, who retains only the habit of his fortune. For Noémie in particular, the image of wealth is more important than its substance. The cognitive dissonance necessary to maintain one without the other, however, has evidently taken its toll on her father.

In Noémie, Newman seems to have found worthy business rival. She is evidently out to make her fortune as well; her insistence on expensive pastimes despite her father's ruin suggests the scope of her ambition. Noémie would like to be perceived as one of the elite, and her first step is assuming elite airs. That she first appears here as a copyist, diligently reproducing the works of the masters, further suggests her taste for imitation, forgery, acting, and falsehood. While Newman is straightforward to a fault, Noémie is most likely not what she seems, at least from moment to moment. In the space of Chapter 1, she first makes a great show of being an artiste, quickly becomes a ruthless businesswoman, and finally takes her leave of Newman as a charming socialite. This mercurial quality is entirely her own. Noémie's weary, drained father seems unable to generate enthusiasm to play even himself, much less someone else. He is entirely at his daughter's mercy and command. Finally, Noémie's prompting of her father in French—to make more money off of Newman—lends a suspicious cast to the entire scene. Noémie is clearly a natural opportunist, but she is also the first French native whom Newman encounters in the novel. That this first transaction should be one of evident fraud colors the novel's subsequent events, hinting that the cost of foreign goods may not always be fair. Newman realizes the price is too high but agrees to pay it anyway, leading us to conclude he is a romantic, a sucker, or someone for whom money is not of the utmost importance.

The story Newman tells in Chapter Two weighs in favor of this last option—that Newman does not care much about money. The decision not to take revenge on his business rival represents a crucial turning point in Newman's life, a moment in which his prime goal of making money is checked by a fundamentally moral question. Newman, therefore, is neither a rabid capitalist nor a slave to the pressures of business. Instead, he is in the enviable position of possessing great wealth without being defined by it. Newman's abruptness and straightforward manner mask a morally robust character, equipped with an innate honesty and a strong intuitive sense of right and wrong. Newman's heroic qualities, suggested here, derive less from his long stride and commanding presence and more from this streak of almost simplistic goodness. Yet these opening chapters cannot help but hint at the reception these qualities later receive on the antique Continent. In particular, the turning-point story and the encounter with Noémie provide an important cipher for the rest of the novel. The story suggests that Newman risks being cheated—on a larger scale than 2000 francs—while doing business in France, and that once cheated he may attempt fair retribution but will only go so far in his revenge.