The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

The Bellegardes invite Newman to dinner, and it turns out that he is the only nonfamily member invited. Newman spends a little time wondering why he's the only guest. Discussion over dinner is formal, and Newman feels somewhat out of place, though he is glad to be near Claire. After dinner, however, it gets more personal. Claire's brothers go into another room with Newman to talk, and tell him the family plans to be welcoming to Newman. Valentin, of course, is more excited about this news than his brother Urbain. After this discussion Newman goes to see Madame de Bellegarde to hear the news from her own mouth. On the way he is waylaid by Urbain's wife, and she wants him to know how happy she is for him, remarking that she doesn't think the family should be so worried about a person's background.

When Newman finally gets to talk to Madame de Bellegarde, Urbain is also present. She confirms that Newman may court her daughter, though she makes a point of telling him that this is not in line with the family's usual practice. After this somewhat chilly conversation Newman goes to see Claire to tell her the happy news. As Newman makes his departure, Valentin tells him that he is planning to pursue Noémie.

Analysis

When Newman arrives at the Bellegardes' home he is ushered into what seems to be scene of domestic comfort. A fire crackles, the marquise relaxes by the fire, Claire tells a story to her niece. Urbain, the marquis, "was stationed before the fire, with his head erect and his hands behind him, in an attitude of formal expectancy." Madame de Bellegarde, too, greets Newman formally, theatrically. The stage is set for whatever the Bellegardes have in mind, which isn't entirely clear to Newman, and the family is determined to keep him wondering until the prescribed moment by means of a carefully controlled conversation about the fine arts. To Newman all of this seems orchestrated to ensure that he will not burst out with some revelation about his childhood or business that the family might find too frank. Urbain seems to display a "nervous dread that something disagreeable might happen if the atmosphere were not purified by allusions of a thoroughly superior cast."

The cumulative effect is to keep Newman at a distance and uncomfortable. He does not belong, and they make sure he knows it even as they prepare to grudgingly accept his courtship of Claire. This effect is compounded when Urbain finally informs Newman of their decision to accept him since he is so reluctant and clearly can barely stand saying that Newman and Claire may marry. Urbain doesn't even want to hear any more about Newman, preferring to imagine he is an aristocrat like himself: "We prefer to assume that the person accepted as the possible husband of my sister is one of ourselves, and that he should have no explanations to make." Newman is not 100 percent sure what Urbain means, but he knows he probably wouldn't like it if he did understand ("I think I had better not understand you. I might not like it"), and so they agree to go on ignoring each other.

The story about the princess Florabella, which Claire is telling her young niece, is clearly meant to express Claire's own suffering. She tells a story about a prince who rescued the princess, "and carried her off to live with him in the Land of the Pink Sky. There she was so happy that she forgot all her troubles." Then looking right at Newman, she adds, "Poor Florabella ... had suffered terribly." Later she tells Newman she could never be like Florabella.

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