The American

by: Henry James

Chapters 25–26

Summary Chapters 25–26

When the paper is reduced to ashes, Mrs. Tristram drops her embroidery, declares that she likes Newman just as he is, and beautifully kisses his hand. She returns to her place, sighing softly for her poor, poor Claire.

Analysis

Mrs. Tristram has expected Newman the American to magnificently forget, in the same way his continent has forgotten all of Europe's traditions. In the European context, America's relative youth marks it as a place without history—that is, a place without sophistication, culture, or memory. By not forgetting, Newman proves that he has the instincts of a high old civilization, just as he swore to Mrs. Tristram in Chapter 3. His refusal to forget, however, also marks him forever afterwards as a man with a past, thus precluding a chance at innocent happiness. When Newman first asks Valentin in Chapter 8 if Claire is happy, Valentin replies honestly that she has a history. The same remark is now true of Newman, who despite his noble renunciation of revenge must live with the aftermath of loss for the rest of his life. In a tidy narrative closure, Christopher Newman, the young world's emissary to the old, has crossed the ocean and encountered the mark of that civilization's adulthood—history. Further, he has done so in France, where the word for history is the same as the word for story. The effect is to present The American itself as a patently European document, a testament to Newman's histoire.

Newman's revenge keeps during his voyage just as Claire kept for him during his travels the summer before. The two extended trips, which bookend the most intense love and loss of his life, are clearly paralleled. The first is an exploration of Europe in Chapter 5, a belated result of his decision not to take business revenge on a rival in New York. The second is a flight back to America, an attempt to forget his new European rivals and decide how and whether he wants to take a comparable revenge. The assault on Newman's assets versus the assault on his honor reflect the difference in the American and European contexts, in which one's money and one's nobility, respectively, are all-important. Both trips are suggested by Mrs. Tristram, the first after Newman has briefly seen Paris, and the second after events with the Bellegardes have come to a head. Both times Newman's haunted by memories of Claire, in the second by the sting of her renunciation and in the first by her intense, mild eyes. In both cases he returns to Paris with the goal of seeing her. More broadly, the significance of the trips is to firmly fix the novel to Newman's time and Newman's schedule. Claire waits, revenge waits, the reader waits, even the narrative voice waits for Newman to realize, reconcile, resolve, return. Just as the narrator admitted ignorance of Newman's thoughts and motives during his first European vacation, the reader and narrator are now politely shut out of Newman's extended mourning. Newman, like any polite but wounded human being, graciously takes six months for himself before emerging, dignified, to tie up loose ends.

The novel's extended emphasis on Newman's gaze provides symbolic closure to his relationship with Claire. His first impression of her was the sense of intense, mild eyes looking into his own. Further, throughout his courtship, Newman was often content to sit back and watch Claire entertaining her guests. Though Newman and Claire rarely spoke in company, her constant and pleasing presence in his visual field made her seem familiar. When Newman saw Claire at Fleurières for the first time after their dis-engagement and Valentin's funeral, he was first struck by how haggard and distraught she seemed, as if her familiar appearance had disappeared along with the woman he knew. Some time later, having lost Claire to the Carmelite convent, Newman attended mass there and was horrified to see not Claire but a large, opaque screen behind which the nuns sing wordless hymns. Finally, in the novel's last pages, Newman returns from his trip to America, takes a walk to Claire's convent, and comes up against a high windowless wall. Thus, his total loss of Claire is driven home by the fact that he can never again see her, that she exists behind a series of walls through which neither his longing glance nor her intense, mild gaze can penetrate. The convent's solid wall has none of the receptive folds and apertures of a human face, recalling instead the smooth surface of a coffin, the weathered slab of a tomb, or the blank page at novel's end.