The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Monsieur Nioche arrives at Newman's with Newman's painting in an ornate frame. Now that it is displayed in such a way, he thinks it is worth 3,000 francs. Newman agrees to pay this amount, and furthermore offers to pay Noémie a substantial amount for some additional paintings. This, thinks Newman, will provide a sort of dowry for her and alleviate her father's anxiety about providing for her to get married. Monsieur Nioche is so pleased by the arrangement he begins giving French lessons to Newman without charge, and the two meet for coffee each day so that Newman can practice the language.

Newman and Noémie tour the Louvre together so he can pick out paintings for her to copy. She is flirty and coy but reveals that she is actually a bad painter with no talent. She also informs him that she only wants to get married to someone who is wealthy, not the butcher or grocer she might win with a 12,000-franc dowry earned doing poor copies of paintings.

Analysis

The Nioche family represents a much different social class than Claire's high-born and titled family. M. Nioche (M. is the abbreviation for Monsieur) is a wheeler and a dealer, always ready to go the extra mile for a "trifle" of a price. Tasked with delivering the painting to Newman, he sets it in a fabulous frame whose sides are a foot wide, and he covers the whole thing with a thick coat of lacquer. He asks a full 1,000 francs more for this improvement—half of the price of the painting, which was already overpriced. He clearly knows his mark, however, because Newman finds the painting in its ornate frame "wonderfully splendid and precious" and feels happy that he has it. In fact Newman is so gullible and unsophisticated even the experienced hustler M. Nioche cannot bring himself to tell the bald lie that his daughter's painting ability is well known, opting instead to say that if people could see her talent they would be impressed: "It seemed a scandal to abuse the credulity of this free-handed stranger." So even this low-class Parisian family is depicted as more worldly wise that the credulous American. He's out of his depth in every sphere.

Like her father, Noémie doesn't find it pleasant to continue lying to the unsophisticated American. She tells him plainly that she is a terrible painter and has never sold a painting before. As Newman begins to catch on to her game playing, he wonders: "What was it she expected to win?" Just as Mrs. Tristram's identity is tied to her beauty, or lack of it, Noémie's life is impacted by her good looks (and lack of talent). Her father is concerned that her beauty can lead nowhere good because men may take advantage of her for her good looks without offering marriage. Since she doesn't have money, he thinks, she has nothing else to entice a man to commit to marriage. However, Noémie has much different intentions for her life: "I will not marry at all if I can't marry well," she tells Newman. By the end of the chapter Newman seems to have found something akin to his own business sense in her, and as she leaves he feels that he understands her quite well.

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