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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Chapter 14 | Summary



The next day Newman arrives back at Claire's home, and, finding her alone for once, comes quickly to his reason for visiting. The six months in which he was not supposed to speak of marriage is over. He proposes, and she agrees, though she is not overly enthusiastic.

The following day Mrs. Bread congratulates Newman but also warns him that he might still have problems with the family, a warning that proves true. Madame de Bellegarde seems to be having second thoughts. Meanwhile Valentin reveals to Newman and Claire that he wants a woman he can't have. Despite the resistance from the Bellegarde family, Newman announces the engagement to friends and family back in the States. An engagement celebration is scheduled, and Madame de Bellegarde is forced into planning it by Newman's desire to have his own party.


The proposal that begins this chapter sets up its central tension: Newman sees the situation as simple, but Claire and her family do not. To Newman, he made a deal with the family, he waited the six months, he proposes, she accepts. Done. They are two adults and they can determine their future together. But to Claire the situation is more complex because she has the weight of family obligations on her shoulders. He is free, and he sees no reason she cannot be free with him. As Claire notes, to Newman "everything seems so simple ... But things are not so." At a very fundamental level Newman cannot comprehend the situation, and his inability to understand her conflicted feelings is another brick in the wall between them. Even Mrs. Bread's cryptic warnings and the continued cold shoulder of the Bellegardes do not dampen his spirits. He is happily oblivious to the fact that despite multiple declarations of love on his part, Claire herself simply "reconciles" herself to the idea.

This characterization as a man who, though honest, open, and hardworking, is unable or unwilling to tune in to subtlety is not altogether flattering. He makes several social missteps in this chapter, even though he has had plenty of time to gain skill in this area. His insistence on playing savior and protector, even telling Claire that he will keep her safe as a father would keep her safe, seems unwelcome. His hasty telegrams sent to America offend the Bellegardes, and his plan to host a party push Madame de Bellegarde into a corner. At the beginning of the novel Newman's strict adherence to his own rules for living, to his own self, seemed refreshing amid the constant game playing of the Europeans. Now they seem frustratingly inflexible. The reader may wish Newman would flatter Madame de Bellegarde just a little bit, for Claire's sake.

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