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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What are the various meanings of Urbain de Bellegarde's statement in The American that he has done nothing he can boast of?

In Chapter 13 Urbain de Bellegarde responds to Christopher Newman's thanks by saying "Really, I have done nothing that I can boast of." When he says this it already has layers of meaning, the most obvious being that agreeing to let Newman and Claire marry is not something he is proud of. Another interpretation may suggest he is an untrustworthy character and isn't being honest when he gives his approval to the marriage but is already planning to go back on his word. However, after it is revealed he participated in the murder of his own father it becomes clear that he definitely has done at least one thing about which he should be very ashamed.

How does Count Valentin's statement that Noémie Nioche "had no innocence to lose, but she had all her respectability" reflect a central tension in The American?

In Chapter 15 Valentin describes, with admiration, Noémie's remarkable approach to achieving her goals. He describes the way she expertly manages to attach herself to men of means yet maintain an upstanding reputation, noting that her innocence and respectability do not go hand in hand. Innocence, an internal state, might be lost, or might never have existed, yet respectability—which seems to be in part the appearance of innocence—is an external appearance having nothing to do with what is inside. In many ways the creating of an external image that is distinct from the inner self is presented as an Old World European value, while genuinely appearing just as you really are is the American value. Valentin may appreciate Noémie's expertise in the external image because he is of the same culture.

How does Count Valentin's assessment that Noémie Nioche is like a piece of machinery echo other sentiments in Chapter 15 of The American?

It recalls his interest in Madame Dandelard, a divorced woman with an uncertain future. In that case, too, he approaches a woman with more fascination and interest to see what will happen to her or what she will do than with real affection. Although he says he has an interest in women, he seems to express this interest as a scientific curiosity, not as passion or solicitude. It also recalls the way Christopher Newman objectifies Claire de Cintré, thinking of her as a beautiful object, a work of art, or a statue to set atop his heaping pile of accomplishments and possessions.

In The American why does Christopher Newman's characteristic seated posture help to set him apart from his surroundings?

Christopher Newman's signature seated posture is to stretch out his legs. This is the very first image of Newman in the novel, as he sits in the Louvre in Chapter 1 "with his head thrown back and his legs outstretched, ... staring at Murillo's beautiful moon-borne Madonna in profound enjoyment of his posture." He does this throughout the book: when talking with Tom Tristram in Chapter 2, "Newman had pushed his hat back from his forehead, folded his arms, and stretched his legs," and again when Valentin comes over to his apartments. Later the text says "he possessed a talent for stretching his legs which quite dispensed with adventitious facilities." Stretching out his legs is a posture that signals confidence, a sense of being at ease with one's self, a sense of not being ashamed to take up space, and a natural bearing. For this reason it is completely out of place in almost every situation since he is surrounded by Europeans whose movements are more refined, careful, and theatrical, as when in Chapter 10 Urbain de Bellegarde puts his gloves on with care: "M. de Bellegarde drew forth his gloves and began to put them on. Newman for a few moments watched him sliding his white hands into the white kid ... The marquis continued to draw on his gloves and to smile benignantly."

In The American what does Christopher Newman mean when he tells Mrs. Tristram in Chapter 3 he wants to "stretch out and haul in," and does he indeed do this?

In Chapter 3 Christopher Newman refers to his intent in coming to Europe: he wants to stretch himself, in space and in mind, by experiencing history, art, other languages, and other places. In expressing this he uses haul in, a term associated with setting sail. He does seem to accomplish this goal. He tours all of Europe, sees the sights, has many new experiences, and learns a thing or two. Most likely he did not mean to experience tragedy and loss, but it is certain he accomplishes the goal of knowing "something about Europe by the time I have done with it."

In The American in what way does Count Valentin's statement that his sister has no right to "bury herself alive" but should go out to the ball foreshadow later events?

Valentin says in Chapter 10 that Claire is "a beautiful woman" and as such "had no right to bury herself alive"; he is talking about Claire's going out to the ball rather than staying home. Yet this image of burying alive comes back into play at the end of the novel, with far more tragic meaning. As Claire tells Newman of her decision to enter the convent, she characterizes it as being buried alive: "Let me go alone—let me go in peace. I can't call it peace—it's death. But let me bury myself." Newman echoes this image as he tells Mrs. Bread, "Madame de Cintré is buried alive ... The door of the tomb is at this moment closing behind her." The convent walls, described as lifeless, put the finishing touches on this image.

How does Mrs. Bread live up to her name in The American?

Mrs. Bread is a trustworthy old woman who loves Claire de Cintré with a simple and honest affection. She was once Claire's childhood nurse and now is the Bellegarde family housekeeper. Though she was a witness to the murder of the old Marquis de Bellegarde, she kept the family secret until it threatened Claire, at which point she revealed it. She plays an important role in the plot by revealing the secret to Newman. These qualities of trustworthiness, simplicity of affection, and importance are well represented by bread, a simple yet vitally important food. Mrs. Bread suits her name as Newman suits his.

How does Christopher Newman's anger with Noémie Nioche in Chapter 15 of The American foreshadow later events?

Christopher Newman becomes angry with Noémie Nioche because she tells him the 6,000 francs he had offered for her paintings was not really a sum that would help her marry as well as she needed. He is upset she didn't tell him this right away. Newman, who never gets angry according to himself, evidently does become angry, at least when people lie to him or keep truths from him. This anger does not bode well for the final blow delivered by the Bellegardes—betraying a trust, having lied about their commitment to allowing him to marry Claire—which is far greater in magnitude than the small deceptions of the Nioches.

What is the final image of The American, and what sentiment does it convey?

The final image of the novel is Newman, in Chapter 26, looking at the fire to see if the incriminating note is fully burned: "Newman instinctively turned to see if the little paper was in fact consumed; but there was nothing left of it." This "instinctive" motion, after Mrs. Tristram tells him the Bellegardes were banking on his good nature in hope he would not follow through on plans to ruin them, suggests he might have second thoughts about his decision not to pursue revenge. However, his action of destroying the note has taken that option off the table. His course is set. He will go home and go on with life.

In The American how does the characterization of Lord Deepmere add to the injustice of the situation between Newman and Claire?

Lord Deepmere is characterized as simple and unattractive. He is shy, has pimples, and has most likely had a "failure in the past to profit by rare educational advantages." He is socially awkward, laughing "a great deal, catching his breath with an odd, startling sound." This is not an attractive picture compared to Newman, who is presented as an attractive and confident man. Yet Deepmere has one thing Newman has not: a title. Both Deepmere and Newman are rich. The Bellegardes decide they will trade Newman's appealing nature and physicality for Deepmere's title. Claire, of course, has already endured one marriage to an unappealing mate not of her choosing, so making Lord Deepmere unappealing as well recalls that past marriage and makes the Bellegardes seem even more insensitive to Claire's desires or preferences.

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