Christopher Newman, the titular American, is a wealthy, successful, hard-working man. He grew up poor and worked hard to make a fortune. He certainly knows his way around money, and his work ethic is as American as apple pie. But one day he wakes from a nap and decides he needs something more from life. He puts his business affairs on hold and goes to Paris. There he meets a variety of people who are more sophisticated and, in some ways, more mercenary than a typical American capitalist. Newman's bold, honest style of communicating presents some challenges, particularly when it comes to winning the hand of Claire de Bellegarde, daughter of a snobbish aristocratic family. His frankness about being a businessman makes these high-class Europeans uncomfortable. They prefer people with titles who do not work for their money, which is clearly a vulgar activity in their eyes. While Newman's optimism and self-sufficiency carry him through many awkward moments, they leave him ill prepared to understand the complex web of financial and family obligations Claire must contend with.
Claire de Cintré
Claire is the unhappy young widow of the late Comte de Cintré, to whom she was married at age 18. With one unhappy marriage behind her, she is intrigued by the prospect of being married to Newman, but she also knows her family is unlikely to allow it. She is caught between her desire for freedom and the chance at happiness that Newman represents and her obligation to her family. In the end Claire cannot stand up to her family's controlling ways, and she is unable to defy her mother and brother's insistence that she set Newman aside. However, rather than marry Lord Deepmere, as her family wishes, she enters the convent.
Claire's good-natured brother Valentin becomes Newman's good friend, and along with Claire becomes a strong ally. He is Newman's opposite, and together they represent quite well their respective cultures. Valentin is the younger son of a marquis who lives a life of leisure without work or, it seems, purpose. Despite this cushy situation he has a weakness for women and a tendency to see them as scientific experiments. He becomes first fascinated by Noémie, then infatuated, and dies from wounds sustained while dueling over her.
Noémie is a young flirt. She has ambitious goals of marrying a wealthy man and isn't afraid to use whatever tools at her disposal to achieve that goal. She sees every man as either a possible wealthy husband or as a way to get a wealthy husband. Accordingly she expertly sizes up each man she meets. When she sizes up Newman she decides he is the kind of man who will pay a lot of money for a mediocre painting. She is right. Noémie fascinates Valentin mostly because of her absolute ruthlessness and her ability to set a goal and achieve it. And he is correct: she is cold as ice. Her pleasure in being dueled over by two men pleases her despite the fact that it might cost one of them his life.
Madame de Bellegarde
Madame de Bellegarde, the matriarch of the Bellegarde family, is a strong-willed woman whose controlling ways lead to great suffering in the family. Along with Urbain she manages to ruin Claire's life by first arranging a marriage for her with an old, odious man and then opposing her marriage to Newman in a final betrayal of trust that causes Claire to escape to a convent. And she has an even darker side. She conspired with Urbain to kill her husband, who stood in the way of Claire's marriage, because she wanted to secure the Comte de Cintré's money for her own family. She seems to do all of these things without a conscience, in the name of family. It is no wonder Claire is afraid of her.
Urbain de Bellegarde
Urbain is a serious man and the heir of his late father's title. He is the picture of an aristocrat: He pulls on his gloves with the perfect amount of finesse, he controls the flow of conversation at a dinner party with precision, and he is accomplished in the art of not saying what he means. While, like his mother, he dislikes Newman because he isn't "proper" for the family, he doesn't seem to have the extreme personality of his mother. He may have ice in his veins, like his mother, but he seems to lack her cruelty. His part in the murder was as his mother's helper, not as initiator. It is clear that while he is complicit in the suffering of Claire and the family, he is not the driver of it. He is as much under his mother's control as the rest.
Mrs. Bread appears out of nowhere in the Bellegarde house, gives Newman veiled and cryptic warnings, and then disappears. Her appearance is mysterious, but Newman takes a liking to her despite her strangeness because she always speaks well of Claire. Because Mrs. Bread has been with the family so long, Madame de Bellegarde trusts her. But Mrs. Bread knows a dark secret about the Bellegarde family, and in the end she divulges to Newman this secret along with documentation proving it.