The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

Newman travels back to Paris before the end of autumn and settles into apartments there—luxurious ones that Tom Tristram has arranged for him. Mrs. Tristram tells him that Claire was observed crying after visiting church for confession. Evidently Claire is being pressured by her family—particularly her mother and one brother—to marry a rich man to improve the family's financial position. Newman is moved by this information and determines to help her. He goes again to visit Claire and, unlike on his previous visit, is admitted. He finds Claire and the young man Newman had briefly encountered before sitting next to a fire and talking together. This young man, it turns out, is Valentin, Claire's brother. Claire sends for tea, and Newman observes with admiration her every move as she serves it for them. As the conversation develops Newman speaks about his experiences in business and in war, which prompts Valentin to ask if he is brave. When Newman seems to confirm that he is brave, Valentin suggests he come see them again.

Analysis

Newman's new apartments are quite to his liking, and his tastes are consistent with his personality. He has New World tastes: He likes big, open, well-lit rooms supplied with "a number of patented mechanical devices—half of which he should never have occasion to use." This description expresses something fundamental about Newman that will become clearer in the next chapter when Valentin's residence is described.

It is in this chapter that Newman first learns of a problem that will prove to be unsolvable in the end: Claire's obligation to please her family and fall in line with their wishes for her life. Newman has trouble understanding why this must be the case. He, a man who feels self-contained and free of any obligation to live up to outside expectations, wonders, "Why does she let them bully her? Is she not her own mistress?" Mrs. Tristram explains: in "France you must never say nay to your mother, whatever she requires of you. She may be the most abominable old woman in the world, and make your life a purgatory; but, after all, she is ma mère." In addition she tells him that in a family like Claire's the members act not for their own good but for the good of the family. Newman finds this difficult to believe or accept (even naively saying that in America women are never bullied into marrying men they don't like) and thinks he can change this reality. Ultimately, despite his efforts he is unable to.

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