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The American

Henry James

Chapters 8–9

Chapters 6–7

Chapters 10–11

Summary

Chapter 8

Seated comfortably before the fire, Newman asks Valentin to tell him about Claire. Valentin admires his sister too much to speak of her rationally, calling her honest, true, and perfect. When Newman asks if Claire is happy, Valentin replies that she, like everyone else, has a history.

Valentin reveals that Claire was married at eighteen to the disagreeable, fifty- five-year-old Comte de Cintré. When Claire first saw her husband a month before the wedding, she completely broke down. Valentin declared the affair revolting and swore to stand by Claire if she refused, but he was sent away and she was married. When the Comte de Cintré died several years later, his family brought a lawsuit against Claire in hopes of recovering the Comte's money. In the course of the lawsuit, Claire learned so many distasteful things about her late husband's business practices that she withdrew her claim to the money. Claire's mother and older brother, Urbain, were horrified and pressed her to reconsider. Claire bought peace by promising that she would do anything they asked for ten years—anything but marry.

Valentin explains to the horrified Newman that a house like the Bellegardes' inevitably stands together: going back to the time of Charlemagne, every Bellegarde daughter has married well. Newman asks Valentin for the long-deferred favor: that Valentin do what he can to make Claire think well of Newman. Newman admits that he would like to marry Claire, and that he would jump through any hoops necessary.

Valentin pauses and paces. Finally, he admits he is hugely impressed. Though the Bellegarde elders would consider Newman not "born," Valentin finds the idea delightful and promising. He cannot expect Newman to know what is at stake, but nonetheless he is very curious to see what comes of it. At any rate, Valentin will get his own fun out of it. He advises Newman to be original and true to himself, though warns him that the family is bizarre and eight hundred years old, fit for a museum or a Balzac novel. Putting out his hand, Valentin pledges his help, both out of love for Newman and because he himself is the Opposition. Valentin urges Newman to visit Claire and to be assured of his sympathy in the matter.

Chapter 9

Newman finds Claire alone when he calls on her the next day. She admits that Valentin has spoken very well of Newman, and that it is as a favor to Valentin that she has agreed to see Newman now. Newman admits that he told Valentin that he admired Claire more than any other woman he had ever seen and that he would like to marry her. Though he may someday know how good and rare and true she is, he knows well enough now, and could have said this from the first moment he saw her. He admits that Valentin has told him that there is a great deal against this proposal. Yet Newman promises that he is honest, that he will take good care of Claire, and that he does have a large fortune. He thinks that the best thing to do is to lay all his cards on the table. It is the longest personal plea that he has ever uttered in his life.

Claire stares at him fascinated during the speech. Finally, looking extremely serious, she tells him that the offer is terribly kind, but that she has decided not to marry. He wants to make her happy, but she says the matter is impossible and further that she does not know him. Newman begs Claire not to say no, but to give him a chance and to get to know him. He promises to do whatever she and her family require, and declares that in marriage to him she would be perfectly free. Hesitantly, Claire concedes that she will not refuse to see him again, on the condition that he not speak of the subject for six months. That evening, Newman meets Valentin walking and recounts the day's events. Valentin is delighted, and promises to present Newman to the family.

Analysis

Structurally, the juxtaposition of Chapters 8 and 9 provide for a significant amount of character comparison and development. Newman's confession to Valentin that he loves Claire, in Chapter 8, is set against Newman's confession of love to Claire, who has just seen Valentin, in Chapter 9. In light of the implicit symmetry between Valentin and Claire, the first speech may be seen as a rehearsal for the second, or the second as a reiteration of the first. Valentin's detailing of Claire's first marriage in Chapter 8 is set against Claire's refusal to consider a second marriage in Chapter 9, though both stories have important footnotes. Valentin offered to stand with Claire against her first marriage, and if Newman gives her time Claire promises to consider the second. Both episodes also recall earlier, parallel scenes in the novel. Newman and Valentin's discussion of Claire around Newman's hearth in Chapter 8 recalls Valentin and Claire's reception of Newman around Claire's hearth in Chapter 6. Meanwhile, Newman's plea to a reluctant but fascinated Claire recalls his very first meeting with her in Mrs. Tristram's hallway. In this earlier meeting, Claire, as a favor to Mrs. Tristram, asked Newman to come see her; now, as a favor to Valentin, she asks him to come again. In both cases, however, the person in whose name the favor is granted is surprised and pleased by Newman's success. The six months of silence that Claire imposes thus echo the pause after her first meeting with Newman, which he filled with European travels. This time, it is Claire who will use the pause to mark the lay of the land.

Newman's plea and Claire's response reveal the pair's completely different attitudes towards the concept and function of marriage. Claire, having survived one terrible marriage to a man she did not know, refuses to entertain the idea frivolously. Yet Newman's plea is deeply in earnest: he, unlike her previous suitor, is more than willing to show his hand. At this point, Newman clearly thinks Claire's family somewhat incidental, believing Claire's assent to be the most important point. Valentin's warnings, however, hint that a "yes" on Claire's part would hardly be the final word. On a larger scale, these two chapters juxtapose the kinds of human relationships the old and new world produce. Newman promises Claire that in a marriage to him she would be rich, protected, and free; to Newman, evidently, the most difficult state of affairs would be constrained poverty. Indeed, fiscal affluence, the legal protection of the Constitution, and the moral and social freedom to do as one likes are the lynchpins of Newman's American dream. By contrast, Claire's objections and her current unhappiness are best grouped under Valentin's rubric of "history." What Claire cannot escape is the accumulated weight of human relations and human memory, the rich fabric of action and reaction that have dictated her place, attitudes, title, and choices. For Claire to achieve Newman's kind of freedom would necessitate a radical severing—an abrupt cut with the past, its values, and its implications. At this point Claire postpones her choice because it is not clear that she could survive it. At the very least, six months' worth of new history could make that splitting easier.

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