Skip over navigation

The American

Henry James

Themes, Motifs and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Chapters 1–2

Themes

The Role of Misperception in the Cultural Divide between Europe and America

Newman goes to Europe because he wants to see the best of what the world has to offer. For the moment, at least, he has had enough of making money, and would now like to see what his money can buy. He wants to hear the best music, taste the best wine, see the best art and, most ambitiously, find the best woman to be his wife. Yet implicit in Newman's European ambitions is his misperception that Europe can be understood simply as an older, richer, and more sophisticated version of America. Newman and others like him imagine Europe as the sort of place that America would be in perhaps a hundred years, if it puts its mind to painting and sculpture and music with the same industry it has thus far demonstrated in its commerce and industry. This good-natured conception—essentially, that the difference between America and Europe cannot run too deep—is a symptom of the stereotypically American ignorance of history, and thus of all the cultural, social, and political differences that accrue in history's wake. In short, Americans are frequently seen as failing to distinguish an abstract admiration for European culture and artifacts from a selfish wish to possess them. The imagined similarities between Europe and America allow American buyers, tourists, and fiancés to acquire their European objects of desire on American terms. But the consequences of such culturally ignorant acquisition were often, as the novel attests, tragic.

This issue begs the question of why and how these American misperceptions have arisen? In one simplified reading, the America of James's time is too fundamentally tied to material production to move on to the more sophisticated industries of cultural and ideological production. As a result, though they admire and covet the fruits of the European project, Americans abroad during this time lack the intuitive apparatus for dealing with the political and social formalisms and complexities of Europe. James deliberately presents the Bellegardes—or more precisely the nuclear aristocratic family—as the fundamental unit of French society juxtaposed against a superlatively American individual. The juxtaposition is one of a successful, if lapsed, capitalist against a self-important family who might cynically be called producers of culture. Much of the difficulty the Bellegarde elders have with Newman, and that he has with them, results from the expected difference in values, beliefs, habits, occupations and desires. Another crucial point, however, has to do with the levels on which difference is approached and understood.

In The American, one important cipher for European and American difference is arrangement of space. The Paris Newman finds is an intricate, labyrinthine mess of streets and boulevards. Newman's encounter with Europe is partly a matter of learning to negotiate the different landscape and the physical ways in which humans have chosen to arrange themselves. He avidly walks the city, asks Valentin endless questions about the Bellegarde house, imagines the effects of American mechanical innovations in Europe, and delights in his quaint and excessively gilded quarters. Yet as long as Newman attempts to make sense of Europe as a variation on American paradigms, he remains unable to perceive Europe's fundamental difference as anything other than creative deviance. Tellingly, at novel's end, Newman does not admit to a great difference between European and American temperaments or attempt to construct a calculus in which Urbain's actions would appear logical. Instead, he simply concludes that the Bellegardes are crazy. As a result, even after Mrs. Bread's testimony, Claire's actions remain ultimately mysterious. Put simply, Newman suffers from a kind of qualified open-mindedness, a willingness to try to fit anything into his preconceived democratic framework. Faced with two cruel and self-centered aristocrats, Newman decides to deal honestly and clearly, even as it becomes clear that neither of them warrant his benefit of the doubt. This plain-faced mode of interaction, jarring with the Bellegardes' continual scheming, effects a series of slips whose cumulative effect is catastrophe.

Personal Happiness vs. Familial Duty

Newman's major ideological differences with Claire and Valentin revolve around the relative weight of personal freedom—happiness, autonomy, interest and so forth—on the one hand, and duty to family, tradition, history and progeny on the other. Broadly, Newman believes strongly in the individual's right and duty to act fairly and rationally, and thus, as a primarily individual agent. Though Newman does his magnanimous best to help others whenever he can, his native notions of morality involve no subjective trump cards. By contrast, Claire and Valentin acknowledge that the gravity in the Bellegarde house is different. Appeals to individual need hold little water under the Marquise's régime. Instead, the motivating force of maintaining the Bellegarde glory pushes the clan members strongly towards its own ends.

The ambiguity of glory favors the most powerful voice and is what has allowed the Marquise her de facto tyranny. Admittedly, the aristocratic bow to family duty does have its advantages. Like a fairy-tale demon, a family's honor and status increase with every concession these goals inspire, feeding on each family member's sacrifice. In the context of The American, however, such contributions are not usually rational acts but, rather, capitulations to the family's power. Claire's decision to marry Newman, followed by her frightened breaking of the engagement, evinces her internal struggle between the ostensibly guilty pleasure of individual happiness and the tragic fate of accepting her duty. Meanwhile, Newman, her fiancé, cannot imagine a rational, objective reason that might motivate her actions; indeed, he spends most of the novel's last chapters puzzling endlessly about it. Newman's objections may be cast in light of the American obsession with individual freedom, just as Claire's actions invoke broad themes of female purity, piety, and self-sacrifice. In general, this genre of juxtapositions offers important clues to James's broader examination of the difference in American and European society, especially as concerns questions of love, friendship, marriage, fidelity, and interpersonal connection.

The Depth and Force of Cultural Difference

From habits to language to dreams, Christopher Newman does not belong in Paris. To be a tourist, even a long-term one, is to confront a perpetual homelessness in which one's chosen city, however fascinating or familiar, is never intuitively one's own. Newman further complicates this situation by his decision to take a foreign wife. The tourist's wish to explore, the child's wish to know, and the invader's wish to conquer are all curiously incorporated in this desire to possess a foreign person. Though Newman hopes, by possessing Claire, to cap his fortune with the best the Old World has to offer, he underestimates the Old World's willingness to let her go. The problems Newman encounters in his pursuit of Claire's hand are first hauntingly symbolized by the figure of Urbain, the guardian of the threshold, who blocks the Bellegarde doorway on Newman's first visit and curtly informs him that Claire is not at home. Urbain's presence is an implicit discouragement both to Newman's entry and to Claire's exit, mocking Newman's would-be symbolic victory of carrying his bride over the threshold.

In particular, this theme of not belonging plays out in The American's catalogue of boundaries, some of which are more important than others. Newman's crosses a number of national borders on his first summer trip through Europe, but none of these crossings is a particularly noteworthy event. For Newman, the foreigner without access to European history or cultural memory, the human divisions of the Continent carry no more weight than the division of an American city into blocks and districts. Meanwhile, natural boundaries—such as the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean—represent a real break, not least because of language. The force of The American is to reverse these judgments. By novel's end, Newman has realized that the true boundaries are the ones humans have themselves erected—to keep their fellows out or their own kind in. The high, blank wall of Claire's convent, which Newman confronts in the story's final chapter, is a final symbol of the impenetrable human façade. Whereas natural borders—in essence, simply piles of rocks or bodies of water—can ultimately be crossed with effort and ingenuity, formal boundaries cannot be taken at face value. Instead, formal boundaries are testaments to human difference, erected as a result of war, politics, principle, or ideology. For much of the novel, Newman stumbles earnestly but ignorantly through Europe as the cultural dividing line moves, shadow-like, perpetually beyond his step. However, such lines can rarely be crossed—and certainly never dismantled—until their root causes are addressed or higher walls built to contain them.

Motifs

Parables, Episodes, and Anecdotes

The American is peppered with anecdotes and episodes, self-contained stories the novel's characters tell about the world outside. Outside can mean both beyond the narrative scope of the novel (as when Newman tells Tom Tristram about his formative experience in New York several months before the novel begins) or outside its current geographic range (as when Mrs. Tristram writes Newman in America to tell him what has occurred in Europe). Such episodes can be charming or whimsical, as when Newman and Valentin stay up nights trading stories of wilderness adventure and loose women. They can be tragic or melancholy, as when M. Nioche tells Newman about his unfaithful wife or Valentin tells Newman about Claire's first wedding. The stories encompass both public knowledge—stories that could be told by many people besides their de facto narrator—and the deepest of secrets, as in Mrs. Bread's story of the Marquis' murder. Such passages prevent the story's narrator from having a monopoly on the story's truth, or from being bearing full responsibility for Newman's European assimilation. Instead, a range of characters communicate clues to Newman in a process of gradual revelation that mimics the usual process of acclimating to a foreign culture, by gradually making sense of natives' guidance. Such a pervasiveness of anecdotes is also appropriate for a story whose truth, ultimately, resides on the level of human beings. The American is as much a patchwork of characters as it is of narratives, in which questions of personal independence are filtered through freedom of speech, control of others revolves around control of information, and the sharing of stories is a critical kind of intimacy.

Physical Travel and Emotional Displacement

The characters' frequent journeys, spontaneous travel, physical motions, gestures, and otherwise bodily movements are important expressions of their thoughts and emotions. Newman's extended voyage to England and America following the breakup of his engagement is a prime example. The distance and duration of travel, as well as the superlative effort Newman puts into the voyage, attest to the magnitude of his wish that things return to normal. Claire's distress about the broken engagement and her fear of confronting her own desires and the secrets of her family translate first into a flight to Fleurières and then into a flight to the convent. More directly, Babcock confesses in his letter to Newman that his philosophical differences with Newman necessitate their taking physical leave of each other. Noémie's real, surprising success in the social world—"how far she has come"—is nicely mirrored by the actual distance from Paris to London she has traveled before Newman sees her with Lord Deepmere. Valentin's distance from his family is reflected in his keeping a second set of apartments, across the river from the Bellegarde mansion and fortuitously located near Newman's rooms. Finally, Newman's two traumatic experiences in the novel—the early decision to renounce his business revenge and Claire's decision to renounce him—are followed by spontaneous daytrips out of New York and Paris respectively, a multilevel attempt to get away from it all.

Formalism and Ritual vs. Spontaneity and Directness

For the straightforward Newman, the Bellegardes' rituals are sociologically fascinating but bizarrely intricate. Invited to the Bellegarde house for dinner, Newman feels uncharacteristically ill at ease, unsure of what to do, when, how, or why. His hosts keep conversation strictly to safe topics, making it more properly a ritual act than an exchange of ideas. Newman, however, fails to see the necessity of the ceremony that underlies the family's extended announcement that they have agreed to consider him as a candidate for Claire's hand. Newman's response to such occasions is usually either to remain quiet or—despite the prevailing atmosphere of formalism—to be very direct. Repeatedly, in the European context, Newman's straightforward approach garners respect, surprise, and often good results. Indeed, for much of the novel it seems as if Newman's no-nonsense methods compare favorably with the endless mix of nuance and politics in which many would-be plans get stuck.

But for all the novel's support of Newman's honest, direct, and at times childish innocence, James clearly sees value in formal gestures. After all, the novel itself is fairly stylized genre, of which James's wonderfully framed, well-crafted, highly structured narratives are a superlative example. If symbol and symbolic gesture are at times opaque, they are also deeply important to human life and relationships. As speakers of languages much richer than utility would imply, human interaction critically depends on the way in which information is presented. Though directness and formality are easily caricatured in Newman and Madame de Bellegarde, respectively, the ultimate fate of these characters no more condemns formalism than it condemns Europe, or matriarchy, or any other class to which the Marquise belongs. The novel's interest ultimately lies not simply in the tools its characters use, but their motives, skills, and desires—that is, the uses to which those tools are put.

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.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us