Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics
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?
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?
Compare and contrast the ambitions of Noémie Nioche and Christopher Newman. How do their goals, past, and circumstances differ? Which is a more sympathetic character, and why?
Suggested Essay Topics
Compare and contrast Mrs. Tristram and the Marquise de Bellegarde, two extremely different women who nonetheless both have designs on Newman and Claire. How does their control differ, both in terms of tactic and of effectiveness? In what ways does their implicit juxtaposition explore and expose the variety and scope of women's power throughout the novel?
During the scene at the performance of Don Giovanni, James is careful to mark the characters' entrances, exits, conversations, and revelations against the opera itself. How does the opera serve as both a mirror and as an ironic counterpoint to the actions concurrently narrated in the novel? More generally, how does James use art—especially opera and painting—as a foil and backdrop for the novel's critical scenes?
The novel contains several long travel episodes, most notably Newman's summer trip through Europe and his tour of the American continent near the novel's end. What effect do these interludes have on the larger narratives? Do they delay the action in an awkward pause, or do they serve a larger metaphorical and structural role in the story?
What does James say about idleness, indolence and business? Compare Tom Tristram's afternoons at the Occidental Club with Valentin's epicureanism. Is there a difference between European and American idleness? Consider also Urbain's contempt for Newman's involvement with business and the politics of Newman's offer to get Valentin a job in an American bank.
Consider the effect of the novel's title, The American. How does the title play off of the introduction of Newman as a "superlative American" in the novel's first few pages? Discuss the use of stereotype and representatives in the novel. How might the narrative have been different had the book been titled Claire?
How is the relationship between Valentin and Noémie set against that between Newman and Claire? Compare and contrast the ways in which the issues of class difference, goals, aspirations, cultural difference, and family allegiance emerge in each of the relationships. What do Valentin's eventual death, Claire's entry into the cloister, Noémie's tryst with Lord Deepmere, and Newman's return to America indicate about the relationships' ultimate purpose and validity?
Compare and contrast Tom Tristram and Christopher Newman as American men. What is the effect of their having served in the Civil War together, and how do the two men handle the challenges and rewards of being an American abroad? Why is it Newman who flatters Mrs. Tristram's latent patriotism, though it is he who becomes hopelessly involved with the natives while Tom whiles away the hours at the Occidental Club? What do America and Americanism represent for each of them, and how do these factors influence what the men want and get from Europe?
What effect does Newman's decision to opt out of revenge have on our understanding of him as a character? Does he appear weak, compromised, sympathetic, mature? Why? What critical similarities and differences are there between Newman's lack of revenge on the Bellegardes and his lack of revenge on his business rival a year earlier in New York?
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