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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Newman goes to Europe because he wants to see the best of what the world has to offer. For the moment, at least, he has had enough of making money, and would now like to see what his money can buy. He wants to hear the best music, taste the best wine, see the best art and, most ambitiously, find the best woman to be his wife. Yet implicit in Newman's European ambitions is his misperception that Europe can be understood simply as an older, richer, and more sophisticated version of America. Newman and others like him imagine Europe as the sort of place that America would be in perhaps a hundred years, if it puts its mind to painting and sculpture and music with the same industry it has thus far demonstrated in its commerce and industry. This good-natured conception—essentially, that the difference between America and Europe cannot run too deep—is a symptom of the stereotypically American ignorance of history, and thus of all the cultural, social, and political differences that accrue in history's wake. In short, Americans are frequently seen as failing to distinguish an abstract admiration for European culture and artifacts from a selfish wish to possess them. The imagined similarities between Europe and America allow American buyers, tourists, and fiancés to acquire their European objects of desire on American terms. But the consequences of such culturally ignorant acquisition were often, as the novel attests, tragic.
This issue begs the question of why and how these American misperceptions have arisen? In one simplified reading, the America of James's time is too fundamentally tied to material production to move on to the more sophisticated industries of cultural and ideological production. As a result, though they admire and covet the fruits of the European project, Americans abroad during this time lack the intuitive apparatus for dealing with the political and social formalisms and complexities of Europe. James deliberately presents the Bellegardes—or more precisely the nuclear aristocratic family—as the fundamental unit of French society juxtaposed against a superlatively American individual. The juxtaposition is one of a successful, if lapsed, capitalist against a self-important family who might cynically be called producers of culture. Much of the difficulty the Bellegarde elders have with Newman, and that he has with them, results from the expected difference in values, beliefs, habits, occupations and desires. Another crucial point, however, has to do with the levels on which difference is approached and understood.
In The American, one important cipher for European and American difference is arrangement of space. The Paris Newman finds is an intricate, labyrinthine mess of streets and boulevards. Newman's encounter with Europe is partly a matter of learning to negotiate the different landscape and the physical ways in which humans have chosen to arrange themselves. He avidly walks the city, asks Valentin endless questions about the Bellegarde house, imagines the effects of American mechanical innovations in Europe, and delights in his quaint and excessively gilded quarters. Yet as long as Newman attempts to make sense of Europe as a variation on American paradigms, he remains unable to perceive Europe's fundamental difference as anything other than creative deviance. Tellingly, at novel's end, Newman does not admit to a great difference between European and American temperaments or attempt to construct a calculus in which Urbain's actions would appear logical. Instead, he simply concludes that the Bellegardes are crazy. As a result, even after Mrs. Bread's testimony, Claire's actions remain ultimately mysterious. Put simply, Newman suffers from a kind of qualified open-mindedness, a willingness to try to fit anything into his preconceived democratic framework. Faced with two cruel and self-centered aristocrats, Newman decides to deal honestly and clearly, even as it becomes clear that neither of them warrant his benefit of the doubt. This plain-faced mode of interaction, jarring with the Bellegardes' continual scheming, effects a series of slips whose cumulative effect is catastrophe.
Newman's major ideological differences with Claire and Valentin revolve around the relative weight of personal freedom—happiness, autonomy, interest and so forth—on the one hand, and duty to family, tradition, history and progeny on the other. Broadly, Newman believes strongly in the individual's right and duty to act fairly and rationally, and thus, as a primarily individual agent. Though Newman does his magnanimous best to help others whenever he can, his native notions of morality involve no subjective trump cards. By contrast, Claire and Valentin acknowledge that the gravity in the Bellegarde house is different. Appeals to individual need hold little water under the Marquise's régime. Instead, the motivating force of maintaining the Bellegarde glory pushes the clan members strongly towards its own ends.
The ambiguity of glory favors the most powerful voice and is what has allowed the Marquise her de facto tyranny. Admittedly, the aristocratic bow to family duty does have its advantages. Like a fairy-tale demon, a family's honor and status increase with every concession these goals inspire, feeding on each family member's sacrifice. In the context of The American, however, such contributions are not usually rational acts but, rather, capitulations to the family's power. Claire's decision to marry Newman, followed by her frightened breaking of the engagement, evinces her internal struggle between the ostensibly guilty pleasure of individual happiness and the tragic fate of accepting her duty. Meanwhile, Newman, her fiancé, cannot imagine a rational, objective reason that might motivate her actions; indeed, he spends most of the novel's last chapters puzzling endlessly about it. Newman's objections may be cast in light of the American obsession with individual freedom, just as Claire's actions invoke broad themes of female purity, piety, and self-sacrifice. In general, this genre of juxtapositions offers important clues to James's broader examination of the difference in American and European society, especially as concerns questions of love, friendship, marriage, fidelity, and interpersonal connection.
From habits to language to dreams, Christopher Newman does not belong in Paris. To be a tourist, even a long-term one, is to confront a perpetual homelessness in which one's chosen city, however fascinating or familiar, is never intuitively one's own. Newman further complicates this situation by his decision to take a foreign wife. The tourist's wish to explore, the child's wish to know, and the invader's wish to conquer are all curiously incorporated in this desire to possess a foreign person. Though Newman hopes, by possessing Claire, to cap his fortune with the best the Old World has to offer, he underestimates the Old World's willingness to let her go. The problems Newman encounters in his pursuit of Claire's hand are first hauntingly symbolized by the figure of Urbain, the guardian of the threshold, who blocks the Bellegarde doorway on Newman's first visit and curtly informs him that Claire is not at home. Urbain's presence is an implicit discouragement both to Newman's entry and to Claire's exit, mocking Newman's would-be symbolic victory of carrying his bride over the threshold.
In particular, this theme of not belonging plays out in The American's catalogue of boundaries, some of which are more important than others. Newman's crosses a number of national borders on his first summer trip through Europe, but none of these crossings is a particularly noteworthy event. For Newman, the foreigner without access to European history or cultural memory, the human divisions of the Continent carry no more weight than the division of an American city into blocks and districts. Meanwhile, natural boundaries—such as the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean—represent a real break, not least because of language. The force of The American is to reverse these judgments. By novel's end, Newman has realized that the true boundaries are the ones humans have themselves erected—to keep their fellows out or their own kind in. The high, blank wall of Claire's convent, which Newman confronts in the story's final chapter, is a final symbol of the impenetrable human façade. Whereas natural borders—in essence, simply piles of rocks or bodies of water—can ultimately be crossed with effort and ingenuity, formal boundaries cannot be taken at face value. Instead, formal boundaries are testaments to human difference, erected as a result of war, politics, principle, or ideology. For much of the novel, Newman stumbles earnestly but ignorantly through Europe as the cultural dividing line moves, shadow-like, perpetually beyond his step. However, such lines can rarely be crossed—and certainly never dismantled—until their root causes are addressed or higher walls built to contain them.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The American!