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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What is the effect of the tragic ending of The American?

Because The American has a tragic ending, in which Christopher Newman loses both a friend and a fiancée, the novel calls into question the ability of an American to "conquer" the Old World with the values and methods of the New World. Had Claire de Cintré married Newman, the ending would have validated the idea that American money and hard work can bring success in any arena. The ending also suggests cultures have significant differences and those differences are not always easy to overcome. A happier ending would have suggested that people are more similar than different and would have painted a more hopeful picture of people's ability to move beyond differences.

What is the significance of Christopher Newman's wealth in The American?

The American focuses a great deal on Christopher Newman's wealth—both how he obtained it and how he uses it. He obtained it through work, not by marriage or inheritance the way the Bellegardes have. Newman's wealth is a testament to the successful application of an American work ethic in an American context. But it is also a reminder of the vast difference between Newman and the Bellegardes. To Newman money represents freedom. To the Bellegardes money is part of the bond and obligation among family. It is inherited or obtained through marriage, so it does not belong to a person but to a family. Newman believes his accumulated wealth will pave the way for other things in life, such as social status and marriage to a beautiful woman. He believes money will save Noémie, Claire, and Valentin from their various problems, and he tries to either give them his money or (in Valentin's case) find him a well-paying job. The fact that despite his faith in it money can't buy Newman (or anyone else) love or happiness is one of the novel's main lessons.

How does The American create tension between telling and hiding the truth to develop the plot and characters?

Christopher Newman is an honest man; he shares his thoughts and experiences with no shame. He has nothing to hide. Yet he is surrounded by people for whom hiding the truth is a matter of course—in small ways and in large ones. The tendency of Newman is to tell all; the tendency of the Bellegardes is to reveal nothing. The Bellegardes' reserve could be read as simple manners—avoiding impolite or unrefined talk in company—except for the fact that they are actually keeping a terrible secret. The tension comes to a head when Mrs. Bread, a secret keeper, turns into a secret teller. At that moment she moves her allegiance from the Bellegardes to Newman.

In The American in what ways are the Bellegardes' objections to the late marquis's handwritten note situationally ironic?

Situational irony occurs when the opposite of the expected outcome happens. In the conflict between the Bellegardes and Christopher Newman, Newman is accused of deception. They first say the note is a forgery and that Newman is making up everything, that he is a liar. This is ironic because if there is one thing readers know it is that Newman is honest to a fault. The Bellegardes are the ones who constantly deceive. Later they suggest the note was written when the marquis was in an unbalanced mental state and so it cannot be trusted. However, the Bellegardes are the ones who can't be trusted.

In The American why is it significant that Christopher Newman has come to Europe to spend money?

In Chapter 2 of The American Tom Tristram asks Christopher Newman, "Made your everlasting fortune? ... And come to Paris to spend it, eh?" to which Newman answers yes. He spends, sometimes extravagantly. His use of wealth reflects his tendency to be open and free. How he uses money reflects how he relates to other people and the world in general. In contrast the Bellegardes seem miserly and protective in how they approach money. They live only as well as they must—Valentin's apartments are described as being borderline shabby. This protective attitude extends to people. For example, their approach to Claire is to preserve and keep.

Why do the Bellegardes have mixed feelings about Christopher Newman's money in The American?

The Bellegardes are obviously open to meeting Newman only because he has wealth. If he were of average means they would not even entertain the idea of his courting Claire. Newman brings up his wealth a great deal, so he obviously senses this means a lot to them. However, the Bellegardes are from a class that does not work for money—money is inherited or received from family and passed along to family. They think that working for money is something lower-class people do. Therefore, though they are intrigued by Newman's wealth they are suspicious and disdainful at the same time.

In The American how do Christopher Newman and Noémie Nioche compare and contrast?

On the surface these two characters seem quite different. After all, one is a man, the other a woman; one is an American, one a European. However, they do share some characteristics in common. Both are ambitious and know how to take action to make their ambitions reality, even if not every action leads to success. They are both dedicated. Newman has been dedicated to business and now to winning Claire de Cintré. They both crave, and to some degree achieve, self-sufficiency and believe money can and will grant them that self-sufficiency. Both are actively seeking a mate, though their reasons are different.

How does the opera Don Giovanni reflect characters and themes in The American?

The opera Don Giovanni, which Christopher Newman, Noémie Nioche, and Count Valentin all attend, is about legendary lover, Don Juan, who seduced many women. This may reflect Noémie's ability to have gained the affection of numerous men, as something of a female Don Juan. It may also foreshadow events in the plot: The opera begins with a duel in which one man dies, and at the opera Valentin is challenged to a duel, as a result of which he dies. In addition, in the opera Donna Anna refuses to marry unless her father's murder is avenged. This may reflect Claire's conflicted feelings about marriage and the fact that her father was murdered.

How are art and theater significant in developing important themes in The American?

Art and theater represent the old and more artistic culture of Europe (as compared to the newer, capitalistic culture of America) and so develop the theme of old versus new world. The nature of theater—pretense and role playing—reflect the European emphasis on appearances and manners. It also helps develop the theme of belonging, since Christopher Newman is such a novice to Old World culture. His unfamiliarity with fine art marks him as an outsider at the Bellegarde's dinner party, and his "aesthetic headache" (Chapter 1), a result of being so unused to looking at art, makes him uncomfortable in the Louvre.

Why is Christopher Newman so interested in the idea of Count Valentin's becoming a banker in The American?

During the performance of Don Giovanni Newman reiterates to Valentin that he should come to America and become a banker. "Do what I tell you," he says in Chapter 17, "and you shall be rich." Valentin finds this idea somewhat appealing, because he "should like to see how it feels to have a little [money]." Part of Newman's motivation, then, seems to be a recognition that Valentin's freedom is restricted by the fact that he does not have his own money—all his money is disbursed by his family. Valentin is dependent, not independent. Newman, who values self-sufficiency and not having to live up to external expectations, finds this dependent state depressing. He clings to the idea of Valentin's becoming a banker because he wants to see his friend released from the bondage of dependency on family.

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