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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Quotes


It had ... that look of being committed to nothing in particular, of standing in an attitude of general hospitality to the chances of life, of being very much at one's own disposal so characteristic of many American faces.

Narrator, Chapter 1

From the beginning, Christopher Newman is presented as a prime example of an American. He is open to opportunity and without the many prejudices common to Europeans. He is at his own disposal, not subject to the desires of others; he is self-sufficient and confident. This makes it difficult for him to understand that his experience is not universal.


To make it perfect, as I see it, there must be a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument. 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.

Christopher Newman, Chapter 3

Newman describes the way a perfect wife will complete his life. He sees this perfect wife not as a human being but as an object: a beautiful statue that sits atop the monument of his other possessions.

His insistence on this flawless ideal, and of viewing Claire as fulfilling it, makes it impossible for him to really understand her.


He had not only a dislike, but a sort of moral mistrust, of uncomfortable thoughts, and it was both uncomfortable and slightly contemptible to feel obliged to square one's self with a standard.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Newman's commitment to being his own man, not influenced by others' expectations or pressures, isn't just a personal preference. It is the foundation of his moral code. He finds it not just uncomfortable, but contemptible and immoral, to bow to others' wishes.


We are very different, I'm sure; I don't believe there is a subject on which we think or feel alike. But I rather think we shall get on, for there is such a thing, you know, as being too different to quarrel.

Count Valentin, Chapter 7

One important aspect of the friendship between Valentin and Newman is their completely opposite natures. They are "too different to quarrel." Valentin is from an old noble family, with traditions and expectations, while Newman is a man without family and without external expectations.


What I envy you is your liberty ... your wide range, your freedom to come and go, your not having a lot of people, who take themselves awfully seriously, expecting something of you.

Count Valentin, Chapter 7

Valentin bemoans the fact that his family, who take themselves so seriously, restrict his freedom. He envies Newman's situation, although when presented with the opportunity to leave his family and way of life and become a "new man" in America he chooses to retreat into traditional behaviors instead.


But I say I am noble. I don't exactly know what you mean by it, but it's a fine word and a fine idea; I put in a claim to it.

Christopher Newman, Chapter 8

Responding to Urbain de Bellegarde's question about being "noble," Newman misunderstands Urbain's meaning and applies the word to himself with a different meaning.


"Your only reason is that you love me!" he murmured with an eloquent gesture, and for want of a better reason Madame de Cintré reconciled herself to this one.

Christopher Newman, Chapter 14

Newman insists on a narrative in which Claire and he are in love, and because they are in love they will marry and live happily ever after. Claire seems to accept this narrative outwardly because Newman is so invested in it. But her lack of real enthusiasm is meaningful: after she breaks it off she does admit that she should have warned him off more vigorously. Her passivity does more harm than good in the end.


Commanded you to give me up—I see. And you obey—I see. But why do you obey?

Christopher Newman, Chapter 18

Newman wants a reason for Claire's backing out of the engagement, but her answer—that her family has the authority to order her to do it—is unsatisfactory. He cannot understand why she does not defy them.


I am too proud to be honest, I am not too proud to be faithless. I am timid and cold and selfish. I am afraid of being uncomfortable.

Claire de Cintré, Chapter 20

Pressed for more explanation of her refusal to follow through on the marriage, Claire sums up her conflict. Her family pride makes her deceptive, and her lack of personal pride makes her willing to betray his trust.


A dull, plain edifice, with a high-shouldered blank wall all round it ... the place looked dumb, deaf, inanimate. The pale, dead, discolored wall stretched beneath it, far down the empty side street—a vista without a human figure.

Narrator, Chapter 26

Newman's view of the Carmelite convent is not encouraging. The wall is high and devoid of any sign of life. This view convinces him that Claire is utterly lost to him, as much as if she were dead. His life, such as it is, must go on without her.

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