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The American

Henry James

Chapters 15–16

Summary Chapters 15–16

As soon as he can detach himself, Newman finds Mrs. Tristram, who has noticed that Urbain is clearly not enjoying himself. As Newman walks with Mrs. Tristram around the ballroom, he feels elated. They meet Valentin, who agrees that the Bellegardes do things grandly, but darkly adds that it is perhaps the last time Newman will feel so enthusiastic.

Newman seeks out Madame de Bellegarde to thank her for the party, and finds her on a couch in deep discussion with Lord Deepmere, who changes colour at Newman's approach. Deepmere leaves, and Newman offers the Marquise his arm to walk through the rooms. She accepts, but shortly excuses herself to speak with Urbain privately.

At the party's end, Newman goes in search of Claire, whom he had by agreement avoided all evening. He finds her on the balcony with Lord Deepmere, visibly agitated. As Deepmere takes his leave, Claire tells Newman that she cannot explain what has happened now, but that it is to Lord Deepmere's credit, and that it is nothing that need worry Newman. Newman and Claire exchange declarations of happiness, as Mrs. Bread comes out with a shawl to warm Claire against the night air.


In the great Bellegarde tradition, these two chapters dispense with action in favor of foreshadowing and elaborate hints. M. Nioche confesses to the hatred he is slowly coming to feel for his daughter, while Noémie swears to Newman that she will make it big. Tom Tristram warns Newman of the Marquise's coldness and heartlessness, while Mrs. Tristram is surprised that Newman's luck has been so immediate and so good. At the ball, Mrs. Tristram notices that Urbain is not enjoying himself, and Valentin darkly predicts Newman's future unhappiness. There are also a number of situational hints that Newman receives directly. The younger Marquise flits about, trying unsuccessfully to tell Newman something. On two different occasions at the ball, he surprises Lord Deepmere in animated conversation with his fiancée and mother-in-law; in both cases Lord Deepmere looks embarrassed and leaves when Newman approaches. Finally, Mrs. Bread appears in her motherly duty to keep Claire warm. This innocent errand recalls Mrs. Bread's two previous appearances: the first to beg Newman to be patient, the second to warn him to make haste. In general, Mrs. Bread knows much more than she tells, and her presence is one of a guardian spirit as well as dead-on prophetess. Her appearance here marks the occasion as significant but, as is her habit, she does not fully indicate why.

This pervasive premonition sharply contrasts with Newman's simple, generous, infectious happiness. His happiness is a testament to his surprising lack of greed: he is clearly one of those admirable men who knows what he wants and is completely happy when he gets it. Newman is completely satisfied when alone with Claire at the end of the ball—even after the hasty, suspicious departure of Lord Deepmere. Set against two chapters of gloom, Newman's bubble of happiness only increases the stakes of catastrophe. Claire's first marriage, after all, transpired as months of fairy-tale planning followed by a horrific eleventh-hour surprise when she first glimpsed her husband-to-be. Similarly, the narrator's meticulous detailing of Newman's moment of glory here seems to beg a darker denouement. The anticipation of tragedy serves only to heighten these hours of innocent joy, allowing our hero to wallow in a deeply human contentment.

In these chapters we see the relationship between Newman and Claire repeatedly juxtaposed with that between Valentin and Noémie. The structure of these two relationships is nicely parallel: Valentin has met Noémie through Newman, while Valentin has helped Newman get close to Claire. However, Newman cares little for Noémie, whereas Valentin adores his sister. Newman's love for Claire clearly mirrors his great affinity with Valentin. With a slight twist, Valentin's fascination with Noémie mirrors his respect for Newman, as Noémie projects the same invincible air that first draws Valentin to Newman. As a result of these connections, the qualities of each relationship beg questions of the other. Do Noémie and Valentin complete each other in the way that Claire and Newman do? In what way is Noémie a symbolic capstone to Valentin's fortune? Is Newman's love for Claire really any deeper than Valentin's addictive fascination with Noémie? Are Claire and Noémie as complimentary as Valentin and Newman? These implicit narrative questions function not to polarize the relationships or the characters involved as opposites, but rather to emphasize the ambiguity of both the characters and their circumstance, and to emphasize their fundamental reliance on each other for support, definition, and context.