What role do forgery, faking, lying, and misrepresentation play in The American? How are truth and untruth important to the introduction of characters and to these characters' development? How does James use the characters' varying use of fact and artifice to compare and contrast them?
On a basic level, James employs copying and copycatting throughout the novel to hint at the dishonesty, ambition, ambiguity, or hypocrisy of individual characters. Noémie, a beautiful but heartless creature, spends hours copying paintings at the Louvre and acquiring the perfect manners of her more affluent sisters. The weak and miserable M. Nioche, Noémie's father, maintains the trappings of his aristocracy even though he has long since lost the means. Benjamin Babcock's spiritual crisis is evident in the juxtaposition of his pious dietary habits with his envy of Newman's pleasures. Urbain, ruthless and cruel, nonetheless prides himself on cultivating the best manners in France. By contrast, Newman's total lack of concession to French aristocratic codes and his naïve insistence on trusting his instincts underscore his heroic nature and relative moral purity.
Furthermore, accusations of dishonesty are the trump card and hallmark of the novel's least sympathetic characters. Presented with Newman's handwritten copy of the Marquis' murder note, the Marquise and Urbain accuse Newman of having faked it. When this fails, they suggest that the Marquise was not in his right mind when he wrote the note, and thus that it is untrustworthy. Yet Newman is clearly innocent, his moral scruples taking him so far as to inform the Bellegardes he knows of their skeleton in the closet and offering them the chance to settle before he finds out more. Meanwhile, for the Bellegardes, lying also takes the form of misleading and misrepresenting. When forcing Claire to break off her engagement, Urbain and the Marquise insist that they have stuck to their bargain with Newman, interfering only when the marriage was imminent. Newman's sense of betrayal results not only from their cruel actions but also their petty allegiance to the letter of the law.
Discuss the novel's exploration of accumulation, acquisition and wealth. In what ways are Newman's warehouses and capital set against the Bellegardes' fading treasure troves and antique châteaux? More generally, how do notions of keeping, guarding, hoarding, and sheltering figure in the novel?
The novel's opening image—an aesthetically exhausted Newman wandering the Louvre—invokes the archetypal image of a naïve American overwhelmed by the cultural stockpile of Europe. American wealth and accumulation is, stereotypically, a matter of money rather than art objects and collectibles. Newman's business interests—which, as he explains to Tom Tristram, are a seemingly unrelated chain of ventures whose only common goal is return on investment—stand in sharp contrast to the European aristocracy's attachment to particular possessions, places, and properties. The French emphasis on the particular is described through the notion of taste—a way of mediating acquisition, as seen in the juxtaposition of Valentin's and Newman's apartments. Newman's apartments, chosen for him by fellow American Tom Tristram, are on the ritzy Boulevard Haussmann, gilded from floor to ceiling and lined with large clocks and shiny objects. The effect is ridiculous, a nouveau riche caricature of the aristocratic notion of wealth. Valentin's apartments, meanwhile, on the more discreet Rue d'Anjou St- Honoré, are damp, gloomy, and stuffed full of antique treasure.
Certainly, James's unsympathetic portrayal of the House of Bellegarde hints at the problems and hypocrisies of a deeply ingrained judgment of taste. At the same time, however, Newman's hope of a free market in which goods and persons circulate without constraints and consequences appears hopelessly simplistic in this European context. Claire, hoarded by her family, is not free to come to Newman, nor is he free to buy her happiness. His great wealth, acquired rather than inherited, is valueless by the European aristocratic standard, which puts its hopes in sublime objects—paintings, marriages, houses—in which the community has invested value. The politics of objects and possession are a currency in which Newman is ill-versed. In the fortresses of the Louvre and the Bellegarde mansion, the tireless Newman encounters an unfamiliar exhaustion. He has come head to head with the weight of tradition and history, and Newman's failure to comprehend the depths and worth of this tradition reflects the extraordinary youth and optimism of his native country.
Both Noémie and Newman began poor and set out to make a fortune. Newman's parents died young, leaving him to work odd jobs to support himself and his sisters. Newman spent the subsequent thirty years with the sole goal of increasing his assets, and has now accumulated substantial wealth. Now, he has come to Europe to find a wife who will complete his fortune. Meanwhile, Noémie is the only daughter of a failed aristocrat, raised in relative affluence until her father's fortunes declined. Now, in the blossom of her youth, she is intent on amassing wealth, property, and respect of her own by marrying extraordinarily well. On the surface, Noémie's and Newman's stories are clearly mirrored.
Yet their sympathies for each other do not run deep. Newman finds Noémie charming but somewhat ruthless, a dangerous free spirit. He is not attracted to her, but instead feels a kind of man-to-man sympathy for her father, a downtrodden chap driven to despair by his daughter's actions. Indeed, Newman's offers to let Noémie paint for her dowry are largely motivated by a desire to assuage her nervous father. Noémie initially appreciates Newman's attentions, but quickly dismisses him as incapable of helping her on the scale she demands. It is this question of scale that causes the correlation between Noémie and Newman begins to break down. Though Newman wants to win his game, his moral framework provides a context and filter for even the most ruthless of his business decisions. Meanwhile, for Noémie, the game is all-consuming. She feels no essential sympathy for her father, lovers, or comrades. When Valentin and Stanislas Kapp vow to duel to the death for her hand, she is thrilled, knowing that this incident and its incidental publicity will finally prove her status. Against Noémie's total shamelessness, Newman's parallel retreats from two purely spiteful revenges establish him as a person of dignity and honor. In short, the novel's moral judgment lies is not with a character's social station or position, but with his humanity.
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