"There's something in your situation that rubs me up. You're the first man about whom I've ever found myself saying 'Oh, if I were he—!' ... It's a sort of air you have of being imperturbably, being irremovably and indestructibly (that's the thing) at home in the world. When I was a boy my father assured me it was by just such an air that people recognized a Bellegarde. He called my attention to it. He didn't advise me to cultivate it; he said that as we grew up it always came of itself. I supposed it had come to me because I think I've always had the feeling it represents. My place in life had been made for me and it seemed easy to occupy. But you who, as I understand it, have made your own place, you who, as you told us the other day, have made and sold articles of vulgar household use—you strike me, in a fashion of your own, as a man who stands about at his ease and looks straight over ever so many high walls. I seem to see you move everywhere like a big stockholder on his favourite railroad. And yet the world used to be supposed to be ours. What is it I miss?"
This passage in the middle of Chapter 7 is part of the first extended conversation between Newman and Valentin. Claire, deducing that Valentin made a poor impression during Newman's first visits with his oblique hints of exploration, has exhorted Valentin to call on Newman and make amends. The two men take an immediate liking to each other and spend much of the night talking. Well past midnight, Valentin remarks that he envies Newman's liberty and his freedom to come and go. Valentin, as a Bellegarde, has been raised in situations of the utmost propriety—tutored, primped, tailored and confined past the patience of any good soul. In the course of a comparative discussion of their situations, Valentin pays Newman the extraordinary compliment recounted in this passage. The honesty and intimacy of the speech, despite the men having only just met, is a testament to the beginning of a wonderful friendship.
The quotation is particularly poignant coming from a man whose family ultimately rejects Newman as a candidate for their daughter's hand on the grounds that he is not one of them. This loss leaves Newman with the one "high wall" he cannot climb: that of Claire's convent in the Rue d'Enfer. Meanwhile, by Newman's hearth and in contrast to his family's views, Newman's honesty, industry and quiet self-confidence appear to Valentin as graces of the highest order. Though he is not of noble blood, Newman nonetheless retains the mark of an inherent aristocracy, freed from the stigma of pedigrees and oppression and instead retaining a sense of genuine personal greatness. Soon, Claire is drawn to Newman's clear, ambient strength just as Valentin is. More subtly, Valentin's diagnosis of Newman's "air" is a troubling counter to the usual aristocratic myths of superiority. By Valentin's argument, French aristocrats look for unmistakable physical signs of their own—a typical habit of ruling classes who want to justify their political seizure of power with a physical basis for superiority. A telltale mark of aristocracy discovered in an American capitalist represents a significant blow to this elitist mentality. Though Newman accepts Valentin's words as simply a compliment, their resonance, irony, and clever preemption of the Bellegardes' ultimate acts are wasted neither on Valentin nor on us as readers.