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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In what ways is Mrs. Tristram important to the plot and to Christopher Newman in The American?

Mrs. Tristram is an important character in the novel, playing the pivotal plot-related role of introducing Christopher Newman to Claire de Cintré. She acts as a confidante and advisor to Newman throughout the novel, providing both suggestions for actions he can take as well as moral support. Part of her ability to wisely advise Newman comes from bridging American and French society more successfully than Newman does. As an American she has the ability to see things from Newman's point of view, but she has absorbed enough of European culture to see beyond Newman's perspective—something of which Newman seems incapable. She can see problems Newman is blind to, and so can advise him on ways to avoid those problems: "[Newman] spent a great deal of time in listening to advice from Mrs. Tristram; advice, it must be added, for which he had never asked. He would have been incapable of asking for it, for he had no perception of difficulties, and consequently no curiosity about remedies."

How does buying art make Christopher Newman feel, and why is this an important part of his characterization in The American?

Christopher Newman tells Noémie Nioche in Chapter 1 that he means to buy "a great many pictures—beaucoup, beaucoup." As he reflects on this idea in Chapter 2 he begins to enjoy the idea of himself as an art collector: "It was only twenty minutes before that he had bought the first picture of his life, and now he was already thinking of art-patronage as a fascinating pursuit." Although Newman does not follow through on his impulse to immediately buy another painting, his strong reaction to "the mania of the 'collector'" shows his tendency to collect in general. He seems to visually collect art as he walks systematically from work to work. He seems to want to collect Claire de Cintré as a beautiful object to adorn his life's accomplishments. His willingness to visit every last suggested sightseeing destination suggests he is collecting these experiences.

How does Christopher Newman's attitude toward European customs in The American shape his perspective on his own culture?

Christopher Newman finds European customs outdated and in some cases barbaric. Arranged marriages, strong parental authority, duels to the death, titles and nobility, and other trappings of the Old World seem, to Newman, irrelevant to modern society. For example, when Urbain de Bellegarde tells him he has permission from the family to court Claire de Cintré, Newman is irritated: "The idea of having this gentleman mixed up with his wooing and wedding was more and more disagreeable to him." However, this attitude that modern America is ideal while old-fashioned Europe is stodgy and antiquated makes Newman too biased in favor of his own culture. He believes American women are in all cases living as equals with men and that anyone can work their way out of poverty, as he did. These two beliefs are, obviously, untrue. So Newman's devotion to the ideals of modern America blinds him to its faults.

What does Christopher Newman's intended revenge on the Bellegardes show about his character development in The American?

In possession of evidence that the Bellegardes committed murder, Christopher Newman intends to show it to important persons in French high society, starting with the duchess he met at the engagement party. Even though he does not follow through, this shows he has learned something from his time in Europe: social status is the most important "currency" among the aristocracy. It is notable he does not decide to go to the police or law enforcement agency, or even a government official of any kind. He doesn't try to blackmail them for money. He understands the Bellegardes care less about the law and about money than they care about their reputation in society. So he plans to attack them there.

In The American how do similarities between Mrs. Tristram and Madame de Bellegarde develop ideas about women?

At first glance these two women have little in common. Mrs. Tristram and Madame de Bellegarde are not alike in culture, age, class, likability, or ethical values. However, both are strong women who understand how things work and who are able to influence other people's decisions. It is true Madame de Bellegarde has the final say in whether Claire de Cintré and Christopher Newman will marry, but it is also true that without Mrs. Tristram Newman would never have met Claire at all. So these two women are examples of a certain type of power that, at least in this novel, women wield fairly successfully. The power they have, and the relative ineffectiveness of the men in their lives, is a strong statement about the power of women as behind-the-scenes controllers of events.

How do Christopher Newman's two periods of travel in The American affect the novel?

Christopher Newman's tour of Europe toward the beginning of the novel and his later hiatus in London and then across the United States have many similarities. Mrs. Tristram is the one who suggests each one, and each one is months long. Each one takes Newman out of a fraught situation and gives him space to put his immediate concerns on the back burner. More importantly these breaks from the action emphasize the use of parallelism in the structure of the novel. Newman's first tour moves him from New to Old World; the second does the opposite. When he returns from the first he begins the relationship with Claire de Cintré; when he returns (briefly) to France after the second tour he closes the door on the relationship with Claire for good. Some readers may feel these interludes slow the pace of the plot, but they add meaning and structure to the novel.

How does a comparison and contrast of Christopher Newman's and Count Valentin's romantic relationships develop themes in The American?

Christopher Newman's relationship with Claire de Cintré and Count Valentin's relationship with Noémie Nioche may not seem to share many characteristics in common, but there are some interesting similarities. In both relationships the pairing crosses boundaries of class, engaging the theme of belonging. In each ambition plays a role in destroying the relationship—Noémie's ambition ruins her relationship with Valentin, and Claire's family's ambition ruins her relationship with Newman. Both engage the theme of freedom versus obligation since Claire ultimately gives up her freedom out of obligation and Noémie refuses to give up her freedom despite how it affects her father or Valentin. The most obvious similarity is that both end in disaster and are then, in some ways, treated as if they never happened. After Claire becomes a nun, Newman's return to the United States is inevitable: he will pick up where he left off. After Valentin dies Noémie moves on with nary a backward glance. This suggests the relationships were never meant to be and have no greater significance.

How do the two times Christopher Newman decides not to follow through on a plan for revenge compare and contrast in The American?

In another pair of events evoking a sense of déjà vu, Newman's decision to drop his plan for revenge against a fellow businessman and his decision to drop his plan for revenge against the Bellegardes demand comparison. Both happen quite suddenly, suggesting an impulsiveness in Newman and that Newman is a person who acts on decisions quickly and has the freedom to do so. But the emotional context of these decisions is so different, their similarities serve to show how Newman has changed over the course of the book more than how he has remained the same. When he decides to go to Europe, his abandonment of the revenge seems like an epiphany—a divine intervention of sorts that prompts him to see beyond his small world of accumulating money. It feels hopeful and forward-looking. However, giving up the revenge against the Bellegardes seems like resignation to defeat.

Why is it significant that Noémie Nioche is accompanied by Lord Deepmere toward the end of The American?

In attracting Lord Deepmere Noémie Nioche takes the place society had previously reserved for Claire de Cintré. This emphasizes the main difference between these two women: Claire is weighed down to the point of a complete lack of ambition for herself, and Noémie is nothing but ambition. Noémie wanted desperately what Claire already had, took for granted, and then rejected. The fact that Claire gives up everything and Noémie gains it suggests Claire's sense of obligation to her family is the deciding factor in her ruin. Noémie's decision to do what she wants rather than what her father wants proves to end in more success.

Why does Newman decide to destroy the evidence of the Bellegardes' wrongdoing in The American?

As part of his decision not to pursue revenge against the Bellegardes, Newman destroys the written evidence that proves they murdered the old Marquis de Bellegarde. This is an irrevocable act that ensures he will never be able to pick up the threads of his plan at a later time. It has the same effect on mood as Newman's contemplation of the convent wall. It is final, dead, over. His motives for abandoning the revenge plan are less clear than the emotional impact of this act. He certainly knows he will never have Claire de Cintré, no matter whether he publicly shames her family. He may consider the ordeal of revealing their secret not worth the trouble—as a businessman he must see it would provide a poor return on investment. Another factor may be that he loved Claire more for what she added to his reputation or life than who she herself was. Part of the challenge was to overcome the boundaries of culture and class that he found antiquated and silly. Revealing the Bellegardes' secret will not force them to accept him. Since the secret will not bring Claire back to him or grant him the respect of the Bellegardes, it is useless to him.

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