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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Chapter 9 | Summary



The next day Newman visits Claire and speaks to her alone. Valentin has already put in a good word for Newman with her. Newman proceeds to explain, at length, how much he admires her and how he would love to marry her. His frankness seems to interest her, but she responds by saying she has decided not to marry again and that she hardly knows him. He tries to convince her that he can make her happy because he will treat her well and because he has a great deal of money and is somewhat successful. Though she tells him not to bring up the subject of marriage for six months, she agrees to see him again. Later when Newman tells Valentin what occurred, he is pleased. He says he will take Newman to meet the rest of the Bellegarde family.


Newman's feelings about Claire at this stage are partially wrapped up in his rather materialistic inclination to possess things of beauty and culture—especially those that have something of the Old World about them. Being a practical man just learning about the more refined aspects of life, he is subject to the allure of what he doesn't fully understand. Just as he was dazzled by the gaudy frame and shiny varnish of Noémie's poorly executed painting, he is intrigued by the aristocratic air of Claire. It is hard to imagine that his feelings for her are anything but sympathy for her situation, a sense of wanting to rescue the maiden in distress, and a desire for a woman who embodies the grace and charm he finds lacking in his own businesslike life. His sense that she has had an education he has not, her understanding of "exalted social needs," and the "mysterious ceremonies" she may have experienced are all part of what he finds attractive. But as he goes to propose to her he still sees her as an object: a "rare and precious ... expensive article"—an "admired object" to be obtained now and then examined and understood later.

Although this does not seem to be the main reason Claire refuses to talk of marriage with him, it is certainly something she understands about him. She knows that he lacks real understanding of her but has seen him watching her. And in some measure she returns his gaze. As he speaks at length about his feelings she stares at him, fascinated. Thus their relationship begins not as one of mutual affection but as one of mutual fascination.

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