Newman was silent awhile. "Well, I want a great woman. I stick to that. That's one thing I can treat myself to, and if it's to be had I mean to have it. What else have I toiled and struggled for all these years? I've succeeded, and now what am I to do with my success? To make it perfect, as I see it, there must be a lovely being perched on the pile like some shining statue crowning some high monument...I want, in a word, the best article in the market."

This excerpt from a conversation around the Tristrams' Parisian dinner table in the middle of Chapter 3 explicitly defines one motivating force of the story. American Christopher Newman, aged forty-two, has made a substantial amount of money in business and now seeks a wife to crown his fortune. In this passage, Newman admits this wish to Tom and Lizzie Tristram, an unhappily married American couple. When Mrs. Tristram replies that her childhood friend Claire de Cintré is the perfect woman for Newman, Newman's epic quest to be accepted by the Bellegarde family begins. It is the first of many bits of seminal advice from Mrs. Tristram, Newman's social guide and first real friend in Paris.

On a certain level, Newman's request comes across as impossibly vulgar. The idea that a wife should simply be the top item in a list of desired objects grates against any idea of fine romantic sensibility. However, Newman's extended discussion with the Tristrams on the subject, and indeed his comportment throughout the novel, paints him as anything but crude. Newman wants a wife whom the world will esteem, but he is ready to be her greatest admirer. He wants someone he can protect, love, and shower with gifts, someone who will justify his great accumulation of wealth. Needless to say, such people do not come easily. Newman's search for the "best article in the market" is less an objectification of this woman than it is a caricature of his capitalist roots and an expression of his faith that superlative goodness, perfection, and beauty are objective criteria. Newman enlists his friends' help in the search because he trusts their judgment. His request is an honest one, in line with his admitted ignorance of art and music. After all, with a particularly American flourish, Newman has come to Europe to experience the best of everything, and is ready to employ experts to help him find it. Despite his rhetoric, Newman ultimately appears not elitist but curious—a businessman who wants to know exactly what can be had at what price before making his choice, a cautious man who wants to take no chances with the love of his life.