full title The American
author Henry James
type of work Novel
genre Romantic tragedy; travelogue; regional novel; novel of nineteenth-century aristocratic French society; cross-cultural encounter
time and place written Paris (with interludes in greater France) and London, 1875–1877
date of first publication Published serially in the Atlantic Monthly, June 1876–May 1877; first published in volume form in May 1877 by James R. Osgood and Co., Boston; significantly revised by the author in 1907 and published in its current form
publisher Charles Scribner's Sons, New York (1907 edition)
narrator The narrator is objective and detached, with occasional bursts of omniscience
point of view The narrator speaks in the third person, objectively describing the actions and thoughts of Christopher Newman. The narrator has no access to scenes that Newman does not witness, but often looks more carefully and candidly than Newman at the scenes that transpire. With exceptions, Newman's thoughts and motives escape the narrator.
tone The narrator's tone is delicate, detached, discreet and erudite. The narrator speaks of Newman as of a close friend, whose thoughts and motives may be reliably but never completely guessed. The narrator is evidently quite worldly, speaking with a sophistication and depth well beyond Newman's own.
setting (time) May 1868 and the several years thereafter
setting (place) The majority of the novel takes place in Paris, France, though the narrative also travels throughout continental Europe, to London, and from New York to San Francisco.
protagonist Christopher Newman, an American visiting Paris
major conflict Newman, in search of the perfect wife to complete his fortune, wants to marry the beautiful aristocrat Claire de Cintré, but her domineering mother and older brother cannot reconcile themselves to the prospect of accepting a nouveaux-riches American businessman into their family
rising action Newman's arrival in Paris; Mrs. Tristram's suggestion that Newman meet Claire; Valentin's endorsement of Newman's cause; Newman's declaration of love to Claire; the Marquise and Urbain's agreement to allow Newman to woo Claire; Claire's acceptance of Newman's hand; the arrival of Lord Deepmere; the Bellegardes' ball; Valentin's departure for a duel
climax Claire's renunciation of her engagement to Newman under pressure from her mother and brother
falling action Valentin's death; Claire's flight to the nunnery; Newman's discovery of the Bellegarde family secret; Newman's confrontation of the Bellegardes; Newman's trip abroad; Newman's visit to the nunnery; Newman's decision to renounce revenge
themes The role of misperception in the cultural divide between Europe and America; personal happiness vs. family duty; the depth and force of cultural difference; the oppressive weight of tradition; the vulgarity of money
motifs Parables, episodes, and anecdotes; physical travel and emotional displacement; formalism and ritual vs. spontaneity and directness; narrative repetition and foreshadowing; female purity and sacrifice vs. male self-destruction, art as a mirror of narrative events; the nuance of elaborate social rituals
symbols The walls of the Carmelite convent; letters and written communication; the hearth fire; Noémie's copied paintings; Newman's gaudy apartment; the Occidental Club; the opera boxes; the duel; the walled Bellegarde mansion; the Bellegarde retreat at Fleurières
foreshadowing Newman's story of his failed business revenge, related to Tom Tristram at the novel's beginning; Valentin's offer to show Newman the house and his claim that he will get his own fun out of Newman's courtship; the opera Don Giovanni; Mrs. Tristram's report of Claire weeping during confession; the agitated scene between Lord Deepmere and Madame de Bellegarde at the Bellegarde ball, and later between Lord Deepmere and Claire; Newman's comparison of Noémie to the young Marquise de Bellegarde; Newman's sudden rush down the hill at Valentin's funeral.