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Symbols

The Walls of the Carmelite Convent

Newman's final, crushing confrontation with the reality of losing Claire comes in the novel's final pages, when he takes a walk to the Carmelite house and comes face to face with the convent's blank wall. Though nominally still alive, Claire is no more accessible to Newman than her beloved brother Valentin, freshly buried at Poitiers. Claire has evidently signed up to be a Discalced Carmelite, a subset of the order devoted to cloistered contemplation. The rest of her life will be spent in prayer, fasting, manual labor, and occasional fellowship with her sister nuns. She will never speak to or see Newman or her family again. The convent's impenetrable façade is, then, a tougher and more austere version of the Hôtel de Bellegarde in St-German-des- Prés, invoking Claire's comparison of the Bellegarde family to a religion. In a more troubling sense, the Carmelite house is a symbol of faith as an impenetrable shield against the mass of humanity—a division of the world into evil and grace with which Claire has long been familiar. Whereas Newman has little innate sense of such boundaries, Claire has learned the hard way to obey rules and to toe the line. Early in the novel, when Newman tries to speak with Claire directly about difficult matters, she flees to the safe enclosures of the confessional or the house at Fleurières. Now, while Newman wanders across continents in his grief, dissolving his pain in the immensity of the world, Claire takes refuge in ever-smaller chambers behind ever-higher walls.

Letters and Written Communication

The overwhelming majority of communication in The American happens by way of personal conversation, setting the novel's letters in stark relief. The letters read like a list of the novel's critical points: Newman writes Mrs. Tristram of his summer in Europe and asking about Claire, Newman telegrams his American friends to announce his engagement, Valentin telegrams Newman that he has been wounded in the duel, Claire writes Newman a note breaking the engagement, Newman writes Claire that Valentin is dying, Claire writes Newman with the funeral arrangements, Urbain writes to Newman and defies his attempt at blackmail, the Marquis' note appears posthumously attesting to his cruel murder, and Mrs. Tristram writes Newman to confirm that Claire has taken her vows. In this context, letters are important documents, testaments to events important enough to warrant relics of them. Symbolically, a letter is a kind of book- within-a-book, a self-contained document that is absorbed into the larger narrative. James typically gives each letter's full text, with some important exceptions. We only see the contents of the murder note through Newman's rough translation from the French, allowing it to retain the air of mystery appropriate to such a document. Mrs. Tristram's news of Claire is quoted verbatim, with the rest summarily glossed, as one would read the occasional sentence from a private letter aloud. Claire's ten-word note about the engagement, though repeatedly alluded to, is never explicitly given, reflecting both Newman and our inability to completely divine Claire's thoughts and motives. The effect of these partial, imperfect, and at times missing letters is to pose the narrative itself as one abbreviation among many, a direct concession to the limitations that time, form, and context place on knowledge.

The Hearth Fire

The warm fire in the hearth occurs throughout the novel as a symbol of warmth, welcoming, friendship, and good faith. On his first successful visit to the Bellegarde house, Newman finds Claire and Valentin seated close around a lovely hearth, hinting at the deep affection between brother and sister. With characteristic grace and great significance, they invite Newman to join them. Later, when Newman and Valentin become friends, the two spend many a night discussing women, adventure, love, and politics around Newman's fire. In particular, Newman prefaces the confession of his love for Claire by asking Valentin if they might first go home and take a seat by Newman's fire. The warm fireplace, then, becomes an explicit symbol of intimacy, comfort, and even domestic bliss. By contrast, an uninviting fireplace indicates its host's lack of hospitality or downright cruelty. The prototypical example here is Madame de Bellegarde's cold hearth, by which the amenable Newman spends endless evenings as part of his quest for Claire's hand. Finally, at novel's end, the hearth fire becomes a rich symbol of Newman's healing process. Fire is implicitly destructive when allowed to rage, but incredibly beneficial when kept controlled. The same is true of ambition and of the competitive spirit, both of which Newman admirably keeps in check by refusing to effect a large-scale revenge. Appropriately, in the book's last pages, Newman destroys the Marquis' note by tossing it unread into Mrs. Tristram's fire.

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The American (SparkNotes Literature Guide)