The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Hearing how Newman was rebuffed at Clare's home, Mrs. Tristram encourages him to tour Europe instead. He follows her advice and spends the summer traveling to various European locations. Along the way he picks up a traveling companion—Benjamin Babcock, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts, whom he meets in Holland. Babcock isn't interested in the culture of Europe—in fact he dislikes it—but he is interested in its lovely natural areas. The two visit locations in Germany and Switzerland together before they decide to go their separate ways: Newman thinks Babcock is too serious, and Babcock thinks Newman isn't serious enough.

On his own again Newman's thoughts again turn to Claire. He writes to Mrs. Tristram to see if she can help him see Claire.

Analysis

Touring Europe might not be enjoyable for Christopher Newman. He would find it silly if he became intellectual, or found himself conforming to a standard of "culture" that was foisted on him by the expectations of others. He sees himself as a self-determined individual and so finds it "both uncomfortable and slightly contemptible to feel obliged to square one's self with a standard." Yet once he embarks on his tour he has a great time and takes in the sights with interest and enthusiasm. After all, the narrator says, Newman is an intelligent man: He can't help taking an interest in things, even when those things go against his theories about himself.

The brief friendship between Newman and Mr. Babcock serves to further develop Newman's character. The two are "as different as possible": Newman goes through life without thinking too much about it, and Mr. Babcock overthinks everything. While Newman takes Europe as it comes and seems to enjoy his travels without complaint, Mr. Babcock takes issue with every aspect of Europe, but at the same time he finds it beautiful: "He mistrusted the European temperament, he suffered from the European climate, he hated the European dinner-hour; European life seemed to him unscrupulous and impure. And yet he had an exquisite sense of beauty." This tendency to feel conflicted about things and Newman's opposite tendency to accept things become irreconcilable.

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