The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Chapter 18 | Summary



The next morning Newman arrives at Claire's only to be handed a letter by Mrs. Bread. The letter explains that Claire must leave suddenly, but doesn't say why. Confused, Newman demands to see Claire in person and is taken to confront the family in person. Claire, Urbain, and Madame de Bellegarde are all there. Claire reveals that she cannot marry him after all, and Urbain and Madame de Bellegarde explain that they have decided the marriage is "improper" and are forcing Claire to back out. Feeling shocked and dismayed by their betrayal, Newman leaves. When he tells Mrs. Tristram what happened, she suggests that the family want Claire to marry Lord Deepmere. To add to Newman's troubles, he arrives home to a message that Valentin has been injured in the duel. He sets off to Switzerland to help his friend.


This chapter marks the beginning of the climax of the novel. The rising suspense and sense that the façade is cracking have finally culminated in the breaking off of the engagement and a heated confrontation between representatives of the Old and New Worlds. And it is these differences, rather than the simple loss of Claire, that seem to drive Newman's anger. Newman's sense of betrayal is important, but so is the fact that he just cannot comprehend why Claire goes along with what her family decrees. She admits that she is afraid of them and that she is only breaking it off because of their authority. But it is beyond Newman to see this coercive authority as an absolute. In some ways her obedience to them makes her complicit in the betrayal. She is not a Juliet willing to defy family obligations to marry her Romeo.

Just as Newman and Claire's relationship has come to a screeching halt, so has the relationship of Valentin and Noémie. Both of the men have been wounded by the end of the chapter. While Newman's wound was to his heart and his pride, Valentin's is a physical wound—one that will ultimately kill him.

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