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The American

Henry James

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

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Study Questions

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.

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?

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.

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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