The American

Henry James

Chapters 4–5

Summary Chapters 4–5

Shortly after Newton and Babcock part ways in Venice, Newton receives a letter from Babcock accusing him of taking reckless pleasure in the moment and failing to appreciate the intense seriousness that Art and Life have for Babcock. Newman, awed by the letter, feels humiliated and wants to laugh. Several days later, Newman good-naturedly sends Babcock a statue of a gaunt-looking monk.

As autumn approaches, Newman is glad he has seen Europe and that he has had the chance to indulge his curiosity and sense of adventure. Though he has worked honestly, he realizes that his goal has always been to amass a fortune and never, for example, to create beauty. Without passing judgment on himself, Newman realizes that it has done him good to see a world founded on other principles.

In response to a letter from Mrs. Tristram, Newman promises to return to Paris if she can arrange for Claire to be at home, noting that his lovely trip would have been better with a wife. He recounts his two traveling companions: Babcock, who considered him too caught up in trivial pleasures to have a deep moral resonance, and an Englishman, who gave him up as incapable of the joy of life. Not knowing which to believe, Newman good-naturedly dismisses them both.


Newman's audience with Noémie in the Louvre recalls the analogous scene in Chapter 1 when he purchased his first painting for 2,000 francs (now, 3,000 framed). Earlier, though Newman knows the price was too high, he is impressed enough with Noémie's honest admission that the high price reflects her meticulous work that he agrees to pay it. Here in Chapter 4, however, Noémie's honesty goes a bit too far for Newman's taste. By commissioning six pictures, Newman has essentially called her bluff by allowing her to earn a dowry dabbling at what is allegedly her favorite hobby. But Noémie has no intentions of whiling away her life at an easel or, for that matter, of earning a dowry. Her great talents are those of manipulation and charm—the art of getting things for free. She seeks benefactors and sponsors, not employment. Her indignation that Newman would pay her a large sum for shoddy work is ironic, because she would doubtless have accepted the same sum as a gift. Not simply selfish, Noémie's attitude reflects the larger French aristocratic attitude that paid work and commerce are the domain of the lower classes. At the same time, her expression of indignation is immature and unpolished, a sign that she is not yet the perfectly mannered aristocrat she wants to be but instead a lovely, spoiled child. Newman's offer is particularly galling because it forces Noémie to admit that she has no interest in a respectable marriage but only in a spectacularly brilliant one. Though she is clearly ambitious, a public admission of that ambition would be as vulgar as working for the money. What Noémie fails to really understand is that Newman's commission has nothing to do with her. Newman is pleased by Noémie, but not particularly attracted to her. She is in search of the superlative, but she is not yet exceptional herself.

M. Nioche, however, arouses all of Newman's democratic instincts. Newman hates to see someone down on his luck, and is happy to subsidize the daughter who has made Nioche so miserable. The sympathy is not a matter of man-to-man help; Newman, after all, is no misogynist, and takes Mrs. Tristram's side against Tom. Instead, Newman's sympathy is typical of his brand of charity. When he makes the offer, he has no way to know that it would force Noémie's hand and prove to be the beginning of all kinds of problems.

Meanwhile, the extended travel interlude is a clever reminder that Newman is not an entirely known quantity. Newman's two travel companions read him in completely contradictory ways, and Newman himself refuses to reconcile the two judgments. The wildly different characters of the judges suggest that Newman is likely to be cast as the opposite of whoever is doing the casting—a remarkable quality in a protagonist. As this chapter reveals, however, revelations of Newman's character may lie beyond the text's scope. When Newman sends Babcock the gaunt-looking statue of a monk, the author explicitly admits his ignorance of Newman's motives. This incomplete information underscores the novel's emphasis on façade, secrets, trompe-l'oeil, and progressive disclosure—all of which allow the narrator to maintain a certain objectivity and critical distance. Newman's incompleteness is meant not simply as a warning to the reader but as an implicit, almost offhand hint to the book's other characters not to underestimate this superficially simple American. Finally, it permits Newman a kind of Chekhovian dissatisfaction with his own story (in Chekhov's short story "The Kiss," for instance, the protagonist fantasizes about how incredibly long it will take to tell his comrades the story of his first kiss, and is subsequently devastated when the story takes only a few minutes to tell).