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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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Course Hero. "The American Study Guide." March 7, 2017. Accessed June 9, 2023.


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The American | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Christopher Newman, wealthy American businessman, has come to Paris after becoming somewhat disillusioned with the dog-eat-dog lifestyle of the business world. In an effort to absorb some Old World culture he is meandering through the Louvre, taking in the many works of art there. As he sits to take a brief rest he notices a pretty young woman, Noémie Nioche, making a copy of one of the paintings. After speaking with her he buys the painting for 2,000 francs—a rather high price. The deal is struck, but the painting—not dry yet—will be delivered later.

After this encounter Newman also runs into Tom Tristram, whom he had met during the American Civil War. The two catch up on events. Tom has been living in Paris for the last six years and has a wife and family. Newman has made plenty of money in business and decided it was time to get some pleasure out of it. Tom invites Newman to dinner, where Newman meets Tom's wife, an intelligent woman, who happily provides plenty of ideas for how Newman can spend his time and money. She is also energized by Newman's admission that he'd like to find a wife. She suggests Claire de Cintré, a young widow of aristocratic background. Mrs. Tristram sets up a chance meeting, and Claire agrees to see him. But when Newman tries to visit Claire at her home he is turned away.

Noémie's father, Monsieur Nioche, brings the painting to Newman's residence. He tells Newman that their financial picture is not good, and Noémie has no dowry to help her marry. Newman agrees to buy more paintings to help out, and M. Nioche gratefully offers to give Newman French lessons at no charge. When Newman meets Noémie to discuss the paintings, however, she doesn't seem to love the idea.

At Mrs. Tristram's suggestion Newman spends several months traveling throughout Europe. While he has a lovely time seeing the sights, he hasn't forgotten about Claire, and when he returns to Paris he again tries to see her. This time he is admitted and introduced to her brother Valentin. The two men get along quite well and over time come to be good friends, spending a great deal of time together. From Valentin, Newman learns that Claire's marriage was short and unhappy, and that she didn't even keep the money left to her by her husband. Newman reveals to Valentin that he is interested in marrying Claire, and Valentin decides to help him.

Newman visits Claire and tells her he would like to marry her. She is reluctant but gives him permission to come again as long as he doesn't mention marriage for six months. Valentin arranges to have Newman meet the family, but the visit is awkward. The Bellegardes are formal and refined, and Newman is blunt and honest. They are not impressed by his rags-to-riches story of working his way from poverty to success and wealth.

M. Nioche visits Newman again, worried about his daughter. Newman goes to see Noémie at the Louvre, and Valentin accompanies him. Valentin is enchanted by Noémie's ways.

Shortly after this Claire's family, the Bellegardes, invites Newman over for dinner, during which they tell him he may court Claire. As soon as the six months elapse Newman again asks Claire to marry him, and she says yes. The couple is happy and excited, an engagement ball is thrown, and Claire's love for Newman seems genuine. Meanwhile Valentin agrees to duel Stanislas Kapp, another man interested in Noémie, over her. This flatters Noémie.

The day after Valentin leaves for Switzerland for the duel, Claire tells Newman that she cannot marry him. Newman learns that her mother and brother Urbain want her to marry a wealthy nobleman, Lord Deepmere, thinking this is a more appropriate match for her. To add to Newman's distress he learns that Valentin has been injured in the duel. He leaves for Switzerland to help his friend. When he arrives Valentin is in bad shape. Before he dies he hints at a secret in the Bellegarde family past and encourages Newman to discover it and use it against the family.

Back in France Newman visits Claire to plead with her to reconsider. She is upset and tells him she plans to enter a convent. Mrs. Bread, a family servant, then reveals to Newman that Claire's mother and brother Urbain killed Claire's father because he opposed the marriage between the Comte de Cintré and Claire. She gives him a document corroborating her story.

Newman confronts Urbain and Madame de Bellegarde with his knowledge and evidence. Urbain tries to buy the document from Newman but refuses to give his consent to a marriage with Claire, which is all Newman wants. Newman decides he will make the story public as revenge against the family, but he chooses at the last minute not to go through with it. He retreats to London, and, after a few months, goes home to America. As soon as he gets to California, however, he decides to go back to Paris and see Claire one more time. When he reaches her convent, he stands outside, looking at its high wall. Suddenly it becomes clear to him that he will never have Claire. He burns the evidence of the Bellegarde scandal and leaves for home once again.

The American Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Christopher Newman visits the Louvre.

Rising Action

2 There Newman meets a young Frenchwoman and an old friend.

3 The Tristrams introduce Newman to Claire de Cintré.

4 Newman falls in love with Claire.

5 Claire's family agrees to allow Newman to marry Claire.

6 Newman and Claire become engaged.

7 Claire's family decides Claire should marry Lord Deepmere.

8 Claire's brother Valentin decides to duel over a woman.


9 Claire breaks off the engagement; Valentin is killed.

Falling Action

10 Newman learns an incriminating Bellegarde family secret.

11 Claire becomes a nun; Newman accepts she is lost to him.


12 Newman abandons his plan to reveal the Bellegardes' secret.

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