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The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Symbols


Noémie's Painting

At the beginning of the novel Christopher Newman agrees to pay a high price for a painting from Noémie Nioche. This flirty Frenchwoman is not a great artist but a painter who goes to the Louvre to copy the great works of art there. The price she demands for her work is far too high, yet Newman agrees to pay it without an argument, demonstrating that he has no concept of what is truly valuable when it comes to art. This concrete item—a painting—then represents Newman's confusion about what is valuable and what is not and of his quest to find clarity. Newman's visit to Europe is, after all, sparked by his sudden realization that the petty grudge he was holding against another businessman is not worth pursuing. What is worth pursuing? Disillusioned with the American capitalist life, Newman goes to Europe in hope that he will find out. Noémie's painting represents this search.

Convent Walls

When Newman goes to see Claire at the convent, he confronts a massive, blank wall. This is a symbol of the barrier between himself and Claire—a barrier of family, culture, and secrets that Newman cannot breach, despite his valiant attempts and honest ways. Claire retreats to the convent as a way to escape the demands of her family, but this does not leave her free to marry Newman. The wall confines Claire, but it ostracizes Newman. As he looks at it, its blank surface is unyielding, and he goes away in final defeat.


Letters and notes symbolize the concealment and conveyance of information. Letters, of course, are how characters in the novel communicate with one another and thus convey information. For example, after traveling with Newman for a time, Mr. Babcock sends him a letter telling him that "Life and Art are extremely serious" (Chapter 5). Mrs. Tristram corresponds with him by letter in "pure friendship" (Chapter 5). In contrast unsent letters represent a lack of communication.

Early in the novel Newman notes that he is free of his business worries because he has arranged not to receive any business letters. Even more important, Mrs. Bread reveals a note written by Claire's father, the Marquis, as he lay dying. This note contains incriminating information, but that information is concealed for years before coming to light. And indeed when Newman destroys this note, that knowledge is lost. Thus a letter is a medium that facilitates or impedes communication depending on whether or not it is sent.

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