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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In what ways can Claire de Cintré's decision to enter a convent be viewed as both a practical and a religious act in The American?

As a practical matter entering the convent is an escape from her family's influence over whom she will marry, or even whether she will marry again. After a disastrous first marriage, avoiding marriage altogether seems like a reasonable decision, but it is one her family will not permit. In addition it solves the problem of having to choose between Christopher Newman and Lord Deepmere, between defying her family and giving in to her family—very uncomfortable decisions. However, Claire's evident dislike of both herself and her family and her awareness of her family's flaws (whether or not she knows about the murder) suggest her entering the convent is a religious act of sacrifice, perhaps hoping that it will atone for her family's sins.

What are the power dynamics between Urbain de Bellegarde and Madame de Bellegarde in The American?

The two Bellegardes, Urbain de Bellegarde and Madame de Bellegarde, dominate the family and make all the decisions regarding it. Both have status: Madame de Bellegarde by virtue of being the matriarch and Urbain by virtue of being the man of the family and heir of his father's title. And both carry themselves as if they have power. Every move seems crafted to impress and be the picture of aristocracy, right down to the way Urbain pulls on his gloves before going out. However, as the novel progresses there can be no doubt Madame de Bellegarde is the real power in the family, and Urbain simply assists her. After all it is her mother Claire fears, not her brother. And when confronted by Christopher Newman and his proof of their murder, it is Madame de Bellegarde who doesn't bat an eye while Urbain shows definite signs of crumbling.

How do Christopher Newman's expectations for his future wife in The American affect his relationship with Claire de Cintré?

In Chapter 3 Christopher Newman tells the Tristrams he wants a wife who is pretty much perfect: "She must be as good as she is beautiful, and as clever as she is good. I can give my wife a good deal, so I am not afraid to ask a good deal myself." He wants to "possess ... the best article in the market." When he meets Claire he seems to think she is this perfect woman. At first as he observes her she seems to have the graciousness and goodness he desires. Yet he has hardly begun to know her at all when he makes this judgment of her. As might be predicted a real human woman cannot actually be perfect, even if she maintains the outward illusion of perfection. Ultimately she feels cannot meet his expectations, and this makes her feel terrible, driving a wedge between them.

What do the Tristrams' descriptions of Claire de Cintré suggest about her in Chapter 3 of The American?

In Chapter 3 of The American Mrs. Tristram describes Claire by remarking, "Among all women I have known she stands alone; she is of a different clay." Tom Tristram notes "Madame de Cintré is a great white doll of a woman, who cultivates quiet haughtiness." Both of these descriptions compare her to objects of beauty: art pieces or artifacts. They suggest she is made of porcelain or clay, which may look beautiful but is also rigid and unnatural. This quality of artifice marks Claire as a representative of European Old World culture, with its emphasis on art, theater, traditions, and manners.

In The American what does Christopher Newman's trust in the honesty of M. Nioche suggest?

M. Nioche tells Christopher Newman he is concerned about Noémie's behavior, and later that he is angry with her, and later that Newman will see a story about him in the newspaper. Each time Newman believes M. Nioche. He agrees Noémie is a coquette and believes M. Nioche really wants her to behave better. He thinks M. Nioche actually believes his daughter is a good artist, even when Noémie tells him plainly her father is aware she is terrible. Yet this father-daughter pair do seem to be a team. M. Nioche hovers around the Louvre to meet people as his daughter paints. He delivers the painting and extracts a larger price for it. Of course the news article never appears even though Newman looks for it. The suggestion that M. Nioche is a con man of sorts is inherent in the situation, making Newman appear unsophisticated and easily duped.

How do Mr. Babcock and the English journalist clarify aspects of Newman's character in The American?

In Chapter 5 Newman travels Europe accompanied, for a time, by Mr. Babcock, a Unitarian minister from New England. Mr. Babcock thinks Newman is too passionate and enthusiastic, doesn't have a moral grounding, and doesn't take things seriously: Newman "liked everything, he accepted everything, he found amusement in everything." Babcock feels Newman's lack of introspection is such a character flaw that he thinks about it a great deal. In contrast the Englishman Newman travels with for a time thought him, according to a letter Newman writes to Mrs. Tristram, too "stern a moralist" and "cursed with a conscience." By using these two characters in contrast with Newman, James presents Newman as a moderate in every way rather than an extreme of any kind. This adds to the portrait of Newman as an ideal American.

Of the explanations The American offers in Chapter 5 for why Christopher Newman sends the ivory statuette to Mr. Babcock, which seems most plausible and why?

The ivory statuette is of "a gaunt, ascetic-looking monk, in a tattered gown and cowl, kneeling with clasped hands and pulling a portentously long face." The text offers three possibilities for why Newman picked this as a gift. First it says he might have meant to communicate that he would try to be more serious, as Babcock suggested. Second it says perhaps Newman meant to make fun of Mr. Babcock's seriousness. Third it suggests Newman had no motive beyond choosing an expensive gift for a man he found pleasant. The first option seems unlikely because it does not reflect Newman's attitude of doing what he likes, not what others want him to do. Although the text says the second option is too cynical for Newman, it does seem more likely than the first; perhaps Newman found it an amusing joke, not a cynical one. But the third option also seems possible: that Newman impulsively buys the statuette because he impulsively buys things in general, and he wanted to give Mr. Babcock something. Whatever Newman's motivations, however, it is clearly meant by the author as a commentary on Mr. Babcock's prudishness.

In The American what is the significance of Newman's observation that the Bellegarde house "looks as if wicked things had been done in it, and might be done again"?

In Chapter 7 Christopher Newman describes his impression of the Bellegarde home, saying it "looks as if wicked things had been done in it, and might be done again." This is shortly after Newman's return from touring Europe and resuming his interest in Claire de Cintré. This is a perfect example of Henry James's use of foreshadowing to create an atmosphere of tension or suspense, something at which he excels as a writer. His impression turns out to be absolutely accurate. A wicked deed was done, and the family is hiding that wicked deed. Later the family will betray their vow to let Newman and Claire marry and attempt to pressure Claire into another arranged and unhappy marriage, forcing her to leave Newman and go to the convent.

In The American how does Mrs. Tristram use bird imagery to encourage Christopher Newman to help Claire de Cintré?

Mrs. Tristram tells Christopher Newman in Chapter 7 that Claire "bows her head and folds her wings" in response to the pressures from her family. This paints a picture of Claire in a submissive posture, showing she is submitting to her family's authority. In addition by folding her wings she is consenting not to fly—to experience freedom. It is a sad image of a bird not using its natural and joyful gift of flight. Mrs. Tristram then tells Newman, "The spread eagle ought to use his wings ... Fly to the rescue of Madame de Cintré! ... Pounce down, seize her in your talons, and carry her off. Marry her yourself." The image of Newman as an eagle that uses its wings to give freedom to the oppressed is a very patriotic image, and it appeals to Newman's sense of himself as an American. It appeals as well to his masculinity as the knight who will save the damsel in distress.

In The American why does Claire de Cintré weep after going to confession?

Claire is seen weeping on her way home from confession, but in the novel she is portrayed as the victim of wrongdoing, not the perpetrator. It is hard to imagine her confessing actual personal sins to the extent that she would weep over them. Readers must draw the conclusion that she feels truly torn by allegiance to her family and the desires of her heart. She is possibly confessing her unwillingness to follow her family's will in the matter of marriage. Either way Claire sees her relationship with her family as part of herself; she does not see herself as separate from them. She is not a free individual. She is a person whose obligations to family are greater than those to self. This is one of the main points Newman fails to understand about her.

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