The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Chapter 1 | Summary



As the novel begins, American Christopher Newman is visiting the Louvre in Paris. He becomes tired after observing the great works of art there and sits down to rest. From this vantage point he notices a young Frenchwoman making a copy of one of the paintings. He strikes up a conversation with her, learning that her name is Mlle. Noémie Nioche (Mlle. is the abbreviation for Mademoiselle), and offers to buy her painting. She agrees, charging him 2,000 francs. She tells him that her father will deliver the painting to Newman when it is complete. She then suggests to her father, Monsieur Nioche, that he offer to give Newman French lessons. The French lessons are arranged and a price agreed upon. Noémie and her father go on their way, but Newman stays at the Louvre to continue looking at the artwork.


The story introduces Christopher Newman, an American who embodies American "New World" ideals and stereotypes. He is "long, lean, and muscular" and has the "sort of vigor that is commonly known as 'toughness.'" He is "a powerful specimen of an American." This ideal American is in a setting that represents an ideal of Europe, the "Old World": the Louvre, the most famous art museum in France, maybe in the world. In this distinctive setting Newman's "toughness" is out of place, but he is determined (with what could be seen as an American work ethic) to see every work of art that is noted in his guidebook as being important. In this setting Newman encounters a young Frenchwoman, Noémie Nioche, who clearly belongs in the European setting: she is a "perfect Parisienne." When she sells him a copy of a painting for far more than it is worth, it becomes clear that Newman may be good at business accounts and arithmetic but he has much to learn regarding social transactions.

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