The American | Study Guide

Henry James

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The American | Themes


Freedom versus Obligation

The theme of freedom versus obligation is introduced and developed through the lens of Claire de Cintré, the young widow with whom Christopher Newman falls in love. From the beginning Claire's story is one of duty to her family. She married the Comte de Cintré at a young age—a match made by her family in hope of aligning with a wealthy and titled man. When he died Claire's family pressured her to keep her husband's fortune even though she found the way he made his money distasteful. The young widow was only able to go against her family's wishes in this by promising them complete obedience.

When Claire's family—somewhat won over by Newman's wealth though less than impressed by his lack of pedigree—agree to let him marry Claire, it seems as if she might find freedom of a kind. Newman assures her that he will respect her and she can have the freedom to do what makes her happy. To Claire, who seems lukewarm about Newman at first, Newman represents an escape from her family's oppressive influence. She is eager to be more than a way for the family to acquire wealth and social connections. However, this happy dream does not last long before the family once again steps in, demanding that she marry Lord Deepmere, who is not only rich but also aristocratic. Unfortunately the novel does not present an uplifting ending for Claire. Rather than gaining freedom she seems to be defeated by obligation. Although she evades her family's plan for her life, she does not choose to marry the man who loves her.

Old versus New World

Christopher Newman is an American from his head to his toes. Even his name, New-man, shows that he is the antithesis of everything "Old World," or European. He is a self-made man, who in accordance with the American rags-to-riches trope worked hard to pull himself out of poverty and went on to become successful in business, again with hard work. He worked so much that he forgot to take any pleasure in the fruits of his labors. So he goes to Europe—to Paris in fact, filled with culture, grace, and charm. The implication is that America was lacking in this department.

In France he meets the Bellegarde family, which lives the epitome of the Old World way of life. The Bellegardes don't work for money; they marry for it. Because of this they are strict about whom they marry: the more titles and the more wealth the better the match. Valentin de Bellegarde, who becomes Newman's friend, is a perfect representative of this aristocratic way of life. Unlike Newman, Valentin does not work; he lives off his family's money.

Ultimately the differences between Old World and New World seem to be irreconcilable. Newman does not marry Claire, his friend Valentin dies tragically, and he goes back to America without the wife he was hoping to find.


Newman spends a great deal of time at the Bellegarde home, much of it spent observing others rather than engaging in conversation with them. He is an outsider, an onlooker. When he does enter conversations he is often so blunt and forthcoming with personal details about his own life that his words fall into cold, awkward silences, or are met with outright shock.

In contrast the Bellegardes not only speak about more refined topics, such as art, but also they are adept at controlling the conversation, steering away from topics they do not wish to discuss. Urbain, in particular, shows his command of conversation control when Newman is invited over for dinner with the family. Not a peep about the purpose of the dinner is heard until the men retire to the smoking room following the meal.

Newman is completely out of place in the Bellegarde home, and despite the fact that his money and his honesty seem to win the family over for a short time, by the end of the novel it is clear they are only too glad to be rid of the outsider. Newman returns to America not having been able to "belong" in Europe.

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