The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What differences between Americans and Europeans does The American emphasize?

The American uses characters—some from America and some from Europe—to highlight differences between the two cultures. Christopher Newman, characterized as an exemplary specimen of an American, is hardworking to a fault, practical, and blunt. He sees what he wants, he makes a plan, and he gets it (usually). He doesn't know much about art or the opera, but he finds the idea of them appealing. He likes new technologies and gaudy decor. He easily shares information about his life experiences. In contrast the Bellegarde family—the example of what Europeans are like—loves old decor, old artwork, and old traditions. They excel at not saying what they really think and lie easily. They do not respect hard work, seeing it as vulgar. They are well versed in art, music, and other sophisticated topics of conversation.

How does Count Valentin compare and contrast to the rest of the Bellegarde family in The American?

As the younger son of an old, aristocratic family, Valentin has the most freedom of any of his siblings. Urbain, his older brother, is the heir, and so shoulders more of the burden for keeping the family financially and socially stable. Since Valentin stands to benefit least from any financial improvement in the family's fortunes, he also feels less obliged to protect it. Claire, as a woman, is under great pressure to marry well and so bring both status and money into the family. Valentin points out that the women of his family always marry well though the men have not. In addition Valentin is the most accepting of Christopher Newman, warming up to him even before Claire does.

Who was Christopher Newman named after in The American, and why is this connection significant?

Christopher Newman was named after the explorer Christopher Columbus, who explored the "New World." This sets the tone for the characterization of Newman as an explorer—someone who is looking to learn new things and experience new places. Of course there is a little situational irony here, in which what is expected to happen is contrary to what does happen: Christopher Columbus came from the Old World to explore the New World, while Newman is a man of the New World exploring the Old World. This suggests that New World culture is so far removed from Old World culture that the Old World has almost become new again. Newman's unfamiliarity with Europe means he has a great deal to learn about it.

Why is it significant that Christopher Newman is at the Louvre at the beginning of The American?

The setting of the beginning of the novel and Newman's reaction to it are crucial to understanding Christopher Newman. Newman, the representation of an American, is in the Louvre, the representation of the finest high culture Europe has to offer. Art, in general, has not been part of Newman's experience—he's a businessman, a practical man, and knows next to nothing about art or the great artists of history. The art in the Louvre is ancient but new to Newman. Yet to this setting Newman brings decidedly American sensibilities. He is systematically and thoroughly viewing each important work, guided not by his pleasure in the works themselves but by a guidebook. As he begins his immersion in European culture, he faces it with the work ethic of a rags-to-riches businessman.

How do Tom Tristram and Christopher Newman compare and contrast in The American?

Tom Tristram and Christopher Newman are both Americans, and both served in the Civil War. But Tom has no interest in great art, having lived in Paris for six years and not visited the Louvre until the day Newman meets him there. Newman, in contrast, takes an interest and makes the Louvre one of the first orders of business when he arrives. Tom is not interested in the opera, while Newman loves going to the opera and especially enjoys Mozart. This contrast shows not all Americans are like Newman; rather Newman is an idealized version of what an American can be. This suggests Newman does not only represent American persons but also American values and ideals.

How do Noémie Nioche and Claire de Cintré compare and contrast in The American?

These two young women are both French, but that is where the similarity ends. Claire is from a high-class family, a family with money and status in society. Noémie is from a down-on-its-luck family, one that is always looking for the next hustle. Claire is pressured to marry in a way that is advantageous for the Bellegarde family, and has little choice in the matter. Noémie, on the other hand, seems to be self-determining in the matter of marriage: she tells Newman she intends to marry well or not at all. Claire is completely under the authority of her family, especially her mother. Noémie is clearly the authority in her family, as M. Nioche says on many occasions how he is forced to depend on her and can't tell her to do anything.

How does Count Valentin de Bellegarde's name reflect aspects of his character in The American?

Valentin—like the English version "Valentine"—has associations of love and romance. A great deal of his role in the novel concerns romantic relationships. He is one of the first to support the relationship of Claire de Cintré and Christopher Newman, coming quickly to the conclusion that it is an amusing idea and may make his sister happy. He is attracted to Noémie as soon as he meets her and takes an interest in other young women as well. He tells Newman he takes great interest in women in general. In contrast to his name, however, he is ultimately unlucky in love, falling for a girl who cares about him only if it will enhance her social standing.

How does Noémie Nioche's art reflect aspects of her character in The American?

When Christopher Newman first encounters Noémie Nioche, she is making a copy of a painting. When it is delivered to Newman, it is framed ornately and covered in a thick layer of varnish. This suggests Noémie is more concerned with appearances and external decorations than with being original or authentic. She is able to copy the masters but doesn't do it particularly well. This is reflected in her attention to her fashion choices, giving the appearance of caring about art when it is really unimportant to her and her ability to turn on the charm at will. At the Louvre she spends more energy and time observing the wealthy women around her than she does in painting. Her careful attention to details of appearance does pay off. Newman notices that after she gains the wealthy "patron" and has better clothes she is able to match the clothes with the graces and body language of a lady—she looks "lady-like" although she is not a lady.

In what ways is the overall tone of The American flattering or unflattering of Americans?

In some ways the tone seems quite flattering of Americans. As the representative of an ideal American Christopher Newman is a likable man: he is frank and hardworking, taking an optimistic approach to life's challenges and nearly always overcoming them. He is open minded about learning new things, gets along well with others, and seems to find new experiences pleasant. These are all qualities to be admired. In other ways the author's attitude toward Americans is unflattering. As the representative of an ideal American Christopher Newman is also uncultured and unsophisticated. He sees everything as an opportunity, and rather than allow life to happen organically he takes charge. His ability to enjoy freedom and a lack of familial obligations makes it impossible for him to have sympathy or understanding for those who do not have those same advantages. His optimism blinds him to the possibility of failure. His belief that his money can solve all problems is also an unflattering feature.

What are Christopher Newman's views on women in The American based on both his words and his actions?

Christopher Newman says he is against the European practice of arranged marriages and is unenthusiastic about women going to live in convents. He speaks out on these issues and clearly has strong feelings about them. He offers Claire the alternative of escaping all of those old-fashioned ideas about women. There are a few problems with his modern ideas of women, however. One is that he is blind to the fact that wanting a thing to be so does not make it so. He knows women in America are in many ways free of traditions like arranged marriages, but this causes him to fail to see the "modern" institutions that are much the same. When presented with the idea in Chapter 6 that women might be coerced into marriage in New York, Newman says, "I don't believe that, in America, girls are ever subjected to compulsion." This is, of course, ludicrous. In addition Newman's treatment of Claire shows signs of being quite old-fashioned. He doesn't start out wanting her for herself but wanting a wife with certain attributes to complete his life. He thinks of her more like a beautiful object or piece of art, not as a woman with flaws and struggles. The emphasis on his observation of her, rather than on their interactions, in the early chapters reinforces this idea that he likes her for her outer appearance, grace, and charm.

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