Henry James’s The American was one of his earliest full-length novels, serialized in the Atlantic Monthly from June 1876 through May 1877. It was written after the thirty-two-year-old native New Yorker had spent a year in Paris and then in London. In it, James began to master his exploration of the cultural conflict between the Old World and the New World, much as he had experienced himself. Despising the commercialism that was overtaking his hometown of New York City following the Civil War, James turned his back on his homeland, yet did not give up his devotion to individual liberty. This personal struggle is evident in the character of Christopher Newman, a wealthy American who rejects the new American financial focus and seeks the historical cultural enlightenment of the lands of his forebears. Eventually, he became a British subject shortly before his death in 1916.
In The American, James reveals his inner turmoil of an expatriate who still retains a love for the fundamental virtues of his country. Christopher Newman, as a type of “reverse discoverer,” is seeking to bring the wealth of individual freedom to this “undiscovered country” of a decaying Europe. The notion of democracy was beginning to find lasting roots in the Old World, and thus The American traces its early encroachment. James’s revelation of the moral dearth that had overtaken the European aristocracy is balanced with struggles of the younger generation (epitomized by Valentin and Claire) as they seek to adapt Newman’s notion of individual choice within the culture in which they were raised and still seek to live.
The American is thus a precursor to many of James’s later works. The rising of a new individual out of the ashes of the old will reappear throughout many of his novels and short stories for the remainder of his writing career.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In 1868, Christopher Newman, a young American millionaire, withdraws from business and sails for Paris. He wants to relax, to develop his aesthetic sense, and to find a wife. One day, as he wanders in the Louvre, he makes the acquaintance of Mlle Nioche, a young copyist. She introduces him to her father, an unsuccessful shopkeeper. Newman buys a picture from Mlle Nioche and contracts to take French lessons from her father.
Later, through the French wife of an American friend named Tristram, he meets Claire de Cintré, a young widow, daughter of an English mother and a French father. As a young girl, Claire was married to Monsieur de Cintré, an evil old man. He soon died, leaving Claire with a distaste for marriage. In spite of her attitude, Newman sees in her the woman he wishes for his wife. An American businessman, however, is not the person to associate with French aristocracy. On his first call, Newman is kept from entering Claire’s house by her elder brother, the Marquis de Bellegarde.
True to his promise, M. Nioche appears one morning to give Newman his first lesson in French. Newman enjoys talking to the old man. He learns that Mlle Nioche dominates her father, who lives in fear that she will leave him and become the mistress of some rich man. M. Nioche tells Newman that he will shoot his daughter if she does. Newman takes pity on the old man and promises him enough money for Mlle Nioche’s dowry if she will paint more copies for him.
Newman leaves Paris and travels through Europe during the summer. When he returns to Paris in autumn, he learns that the Tristrams were helpful; the Bellegardes are willing to receive him. One evening, Claire’s younger brother, Valentin, calls on Newman and the two men find their opposite points of view a basis for friendship. Valentin envies Newman’s liberty to do as he pleases; Newman wishes himself acceptable to the society in which the Bellegardes move. After the two men become good friends, Newman tells Valentin that he wishes to marry his sister and asks Valentin to plead his cause. Warning Newman that his social position is against him, Valentin promises to help the American as much as he can.
Newman confesses his wish to Claire and asks Madame de Bellegarde, Claire’s mother, and the Marquis for permission to be her suitor. The...
(The entire section is 953 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
Christopher Newman, an American tourist in his thirties, is in the Salon Carré in the Louvre Museum in Paris. It is May 1868. Newman gives the appearance of being fit, though at the moment he is weary from walking all over the Louvre, examining all the pictures that the Bäedeker guide has marked as significant. Lounging on the divan in the middle of the salon, he appears the quintessential American, marked more by his expression than by his features. As he examines the painting of the Madonna by Murillo, he notices a young Frenchwoman copying the picture with great care. Noticing his observation of her, she assumes the attitude of great concentration on her work. He approaches her and asks, in English, how much she wants for her picture. She does not understand English, but understands his intention well enough. He asks again for the price of the painting, and she states that it is two thousand francs. He pauses, then asks if this is not a high price for a copy. She says that the quality of her copy is worth that price. He expresses his interest in buying it, but she must finish it, and, should it not be to his satisfaction, he will not feel obligated to take it. He gives her a card with his address so that the painting may be delivered on completion. She promises to finish the painting within the week. She tries to read his name, but has difficulty. He pronounces it for her, stating that he is named after Christopher Columbus. On this revelation she realizes that he is an American. When Newman asks for her card, she replies that her father will wait on him. He asks for her card and address again, and she gives him one on which her name is written: Mlle. Noémie Nioche. At that point her father arrives. He is dressed poorly, but it is evident that he was not born poor. Noémie explains to him that he has bought her painting for two thousand francs. He is astonished, but he thanks Newman for the purchase. Newman comments on the evident training Noémie has had, to which her father agrees. Newman then remarks to M. Nioche that he understands that he has had reversals of fortune. Noémie remarks (in French) that perhaps Newman can help him back on his feet. She suggests that her father give Newman French lessons. M. Nioche reluctantly agrees to offer to do so...
(The entire section is 935 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary and Analysis
After Noémie leaves, Newman returns to the divan, looking at a new painting. He sees another copyist and is considering approaching him to ask the price of his painting, when he sees someone knows, wandering around the salon. At first the acquaintance does not recognize Newman, but then identifies him. He is Tom Tristam, whom he knew in St. Louis during their service in the Civil War. When Newman explains to him that he had just bought a painting, Tristam is confused, thinking that he bought one of the original works of art. He mentions that he is married with two children and has been living in Paris for six years.
Tristam, despite his assurance that he knows all about Paris, is not aware of the regulations of the Louvre concerning smoking, having been there only once (he thinks) with his wife when they first arrived in Paris. Tristam invites him to the Palais Royal, a small but elegant dining establishment nearby. Tristam asks Newman all about himself, where he is staying, etc. When Newman tells him that he is staying at the Grand Hotel, Tristam insists that he move to a smaller, more elegant hotel, where he can be waited on hand and foot by the servants. Newman insists that he likes his hotel and does not care about the “elegance” that Tristam describes.
At Tristam’s query, Newman explains that he has made “enough” money, and now he intends to rest from business, to see the world, enjoy himself, improve his mind, and find a wife. Tristam is impressed by his ambition, and asks how he managed to get to this point. Newman replies, simply, that he has worked.
In a brief narrative, the narrator reveals that, during the war, Newman had become thoroughly sick of war as a complete waste. He had been forced onto the streets as a teenager, but managed to get by. After the war, he continued to labor, going to San Francisco. Through sheer hard work he built up a fortune.
Tristam is encouraging him to join the Occidental, a club for Americans, and to play poker, but Newman insists that he did not come this far to play games. He wants to see art and hear music. Tristam says he does not dare introduce him to his wife, since both of them would then look down on him as a...
(The entire section is 920 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary and Analysis
Tom Tristam takes Newman to meet his wife the next day. More than showing off his wife, Tristam shows off the luxuriousness of his apartment. Newman, however, is much taken with Mrs. Tristam. She is plain, but interesting. In her younger days, she lamented constantly over her lack of beauty, but decided that a pretty face may, in fact, get in the way of being charming. Since she lacks the pretty face, she is bent of gaining the charm.
Mrs. Tristam states repeatedly that she dislikes Paris, but it is the only place where she can find things that suit her sense of fashion. She despises her husband, having married him only to make another man (who refused her) jealous. Newman enjoys her...
(The entire section is 932 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary and Analysis
M. Nioche finally comes to deliver the painting that Newman purchases from Nioche’s daughter, Noémie. He has had it framed, so the price is now three thousand francs, which Newman willingly pays. Newman discusses Noémie with her father, learning that he is very concerned about her. She is very pretty, but is poor, which is an insurmountable handicap in Paris for a young lady if she wants to marry well. Her father does not have a sufficient dowry to interest the eligible men in the community. Newman replies that her talent itself should be more than enough dowry for any man. He agrees to pay her for six paintings, which will give her sufficient money to provide a dowry to the young man her father...
(The entire section is 974 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary and Analysis
Newman confesses to Mrs. Tristam that his visit to Claire de Cintré did not go well. She urges him to travel, to avoid discouragement, and see the rest of Europe as he had originally planned. He is not sure that he will return to Paris, but may go to Rome or Egypt. He says he is giving up any interest in Claire de Cintré, though he cannot forget her eyes. This part of his thoughts, however, he does not share with Mrs. Tristam. He says good-bye to M. Nioche, assuring him that he saw no hint of flirtatiousness in Noémie.
As Newman travels, he fits in easily with whatever culture he finds himself experiencing. He makes friends easily, and does not seem to be hampered by his ignorance of the...
(The entire section is 979 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary and Analysis
Newman returns to Paris before the end of autumn, where he finds that Tom Tristam has taken upon himself to find Newman apartments suitable to his social position. Mrs. Tristam warns that, if her husband is in charge, the apartments will be hideous. The lodgings that Tristam finds have walls covered in gilt and satin. Newman pronounces them fine, but leaves his belongings unpacked in the drawing room for three months.
Mrs. Tristam visits tells him that she has seen Clair de Cintré coming from confession with red eyes. Claire’s mother and brother are trying to force her to marry again against her will. Newman is shocked that women in Europe are forced to marry men they hate, to which...
(The entire section is 953 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary and Analysis
Valentin visits Newman late one night about a week after the latter had visited at the home of Claire. He laughs on entering Newman's apartments, but he explains that it is not because he finds them amusing but magnificent. Valentin spends several hours in Newman's company, and the two talk into the early morning. Newman observes that the Frenchman is below average in height, with thick, silky hair, and an expression of irony and inquiry. Valentin confesses that he is concerned about his weight because he is too short to carry a heavy stomach effectively. He explains that he has come to apologize at his sister's command for appearing to be foolish during Newman's previous visit. He says that Newman is...
(The entire section is 967 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary and Analysis
As Newman and Valentin lounge in front of the fire at Newman's apartments, Newman asks the Frenchman to tell him about his sister, Claire. Valentin proceeds to describe her as perfect. She is beautiful, intelligent, well-mannered, not given to extremes in any trait. She is personable, longing to please people, but is not upset when she does not.
Valentin gives her history. She was married to a wealthy gentleman of the nobility by her parents' arrangement, most specifically her mother's and her elder brother's. Monsieur de Cintre was sixty years old at the time of the marriage. Claire did not meet him until one month before the wedding. When she first saw him, she turned white. She...
(The entire section is 988 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary and Analysis
The next day, Newman pays a visit to Claire de Cintre at her home. He is pleased to find her alone, though she keeps him waiting for some time. He is struck again at her cultured air, as if she had been trained from birth to be the highest representation of French womanhood, which indeed she had been. Yet he wonders where the training ends and the real Claire begins.
Newman tells her that when he had visited previously and other ladies were present, he found that they did not take away from Claire's beauty, but only helped him to admire her. He says this not out of a calculated attempt to impress her but simply because he is a “practical man” and knows what he has already decided upon...
(The entire section is 880 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary and Analysis
Newman visits Mrs. Tristam, informing her of his minimal success with Claire de Cintre. She chides him for “deserting” her for Claire, though Newman has been especially devoted to the Tristams, even to the point of turning down an invitation with a Polish princess because he had a standing dinner date with Mrs. Tristam. Mrs. Tristam, even though she had been the one to encourage Newman's courtship of Claire, is now a bit jealous that Claire is taking more of Newman's attention away from her. She is not as disinterested as she thought she would be. Newman insists that his new relationship with Claire is not a triumph, but Mrs. Tristam disagrees. The fact that Claire did not stop him when he first...
(The entire section is 891 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary and Analysis
Newman realizes that since he has returned to Paris from his summer travels, he has not resumed his lessons or his relationship with M. Nioche. The Frenchman, however, takes it upon himself to make the first move and comes to Newman's apartments. The “little capitalist,” as M. Nioche is called, feels he is still in debt to the American and must redeem it for his own honor. Little has changed as far as M. Nioche's outward appearance, but his spirits are obviously the worse for wear. Newman asks about his daughter, but M. Nioche states that he can do nothing with her. She goes to the Louvre daily, but does not do any work. Instead of working to fulfill her agreement of paintings for Newman, she...
(The entire section is 911 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary and Analysis
Three days after his first meeting with the entire Bellegarde family, Newman is summoned once again into their presence. He finds all assembled, with Claire off to the side telling a fairy tale to her young niece. Newman offers his hand to the marquis and the other family members in their turn, and is welcomed. Claire tells him about the fairy tale she was telling her niece, where the heroine is rescued from all her troubles by the prince. She states that she herself does not have enough courage to be a heroine, no matter how great the reward.
Newman is unsure of the reason for his being the only guest at the dinner, whether it means they have accepted him or are too ashamed of him to...
(The entire section is 994 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary and Analysis
Newman makes numerous visits to the Bellegarde home. He tries to convince himself that he is not in love, but he cannot stop thinking of Claire. He wishes to save her from her unhappiness, but keeps his promise not to mention marriage to her for six months. He explains about his life in America and asks her about her family history.
Visiting Mrs. Tristam, Newman states that Madame de Bellegarde is “an old sinner.” He would not put her past the ability to commit murder. As for Urbain, he says that although he may never have committed murder, he could imagine him turning the other way while one was being committed. Urbain continues to accept Newman, although he is visibly endeavoring to...
(The entire section is 959 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary and Analysis
When Newman next comes to the Bellegarde home he finds Claire alone, as he had hoped. He tells her that in the past six months he has kept his promise not to mention marriage to her, thus allowing her time to learn more about him. She confesses that it is a relief that he has finally brought up the topic once again, although she is not yet ready to commit. He reiterates that with him she will be safe. However, she states that she is weak. She liked him six months before; now she is even more sure of her feelings for him. His feelings have not changed; he is only validated in his love.
Claire tells Newman that although he has promised to give her everything, material riches are not what she...
(The entire section is 953 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary and Analysis
Newman is concerned on learning from Valentin that Noémie Nioche has left her father’s home and is involved with a man. He has not seen M. Nioche for a month, and he begins to be worried that the elderly Frenchman might have resorted to suicide.
In the meantime, Newman learns from Valentin that the man with whom Noémie has become involved with is fifty years old, bald, and deaf, but very generous with Noémie concerning money. Valentin seems interested in this situation, even mildly amused. Newman, however, is disgusted. He decides to go to visit M. Nioche to determine if his friend is handling this new situation with his daughter well. He goes to M. Nioche’s home but learns from the...
(The entire section is 970 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary and Analysis
Newman meets Claire every day for the next ten days, always alone. Claire says her mother and brother are busy escorted their cousin, Lord Deepmere, around Paris. Newman also meets Urbain’s wife, the young Madame de Bellegarde, around town. He feels she always has the air of wanting to ask him something or to tell him something.
As far as their courtship is concerned, Claire and Newman are extremely happy. The only complaint Claire has against Newman is that he never does anything for which she might scold him. Mrs. Tristam tells him that he is incredibly lucky in his engagement to Claire. “You get brilliancy without paying any tax upon it,” she tells him. Usually there is a deal of...
(The entire section is 925 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary and Analysis
Newman’s love of music takes him frequently to the opera. He especially enjoys treating friends to a night on the town, not in a condescending way, but simply because he loves entertaining. After one such evening when his guest talked through the entire performance, he resolves to go alone for a while. On one such evening, he notices Urbain and his wife in one of the boxes. He also notices Noémie Nioche in one of the small boxes with a young man with whom Newman is not acquainted. Noémie sees him and smiles at him. As Newman goes to the lobby, he comes across Valentin, sitting on one of the sofas with his head in his hands, clearly depressed about something. Newman confronts him and learns that he is...
(The entire section is 1030 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary and Analysis
When Newman goes to visit Claire, he is met by Mrs. Bread with a letter for him. Mrs. Bread informs Newman that Claire is leaving town. She shows Newman in to Claire, despite her being unprepared for him, as she is packing to depart. Also there are Urbain and Madame de Bellegarde. Claire informs him that “something” has happened and that she cannot marry him. Her mother emphasizes this news by telling Newman that their marriage would be “impossible.” Claire asks Newman to let her go in peace, though she says that there is not peace, only death.
Newman confronts Urbain and Madame de Bellegarde with their promise not to stand in his way. He points out that they swore on their honor that...
(The entire section is 961 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary and Analysis
When Newman arrives in Geneva, he is met by one of Valentin’s second, M. Ledoux, functioning as a supporter of him in his duel with Stanislas Kapp. He informs Newman that the doctor has determined that Valentin will not survive the gunshot wound he received from Kapp in the duel. He says it is ironic that it should be Valentin who dies, since Kapp was no shot, while Valentin himself has received training in firearms.
As the two men walk to the place where Valentin lies on his death bed, Valentin’s second explains the course of the duel. The first shots were not deemed satisfactory by either party, so a second shot was decided upon. Valentin’s shot grazes Kapp’s arm, which is what he...
(The entire section is 941 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary and Analysis
Valentin dies the next morning. Newman leaves the inn and wanders around the city, feeling sore and wounded from his grief. He writes to Claire, telling her of her brother’s death and asks to see her as soon as possible. According to his will, Valentin will be buried next to his father in the churchyard of Fleurieres. Newman decides that, despite his disagreements with the family, his friendship with Valentin validates his intention to attend the funeral. Newman receives a letter from Claire, stating that it would serve no purpose to see him, as she will see “no brighter days.”
Newman goes to Fleurieres, which is a small village at the foot of mound on which stands a crumbling feudal...
(The entire section is 948 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary and Analysis
Newman walks around the village, certain that Claire is lost, but unwilling to give up the fight. He struggles with the notion that, although he has humbled himself in approaching the Bellegarde family, he is still not “good enough” to rate as a potential son-in-law, simply because he is a “commercial person.” With a bit of a wounded pride, he is unwilling to simply walk away until the situation has been resolved more satisfactorily. He decides he will go to the chateau and speak once again to Madame de Bellegarde and Urbain. He hopes that, with the hints that Valentin dropped as he lay dying, he might be able to influence them to remove their objections to his and Claire’s marriage. He...
(The entire section is 1031 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary and Analysis
As Mrs. Bread and Newman talk, the servant begs Newman not to blame Claire for rejecting him. She states that the family worked on her feelings, causing her to be plagued with guilt, though she has done nothing. Mrs. Bread says that Claire had been afraid for a long time, afraid of her family and what they had done in the past. Newman tells her that Valentin, on his death bed, had told him to ask Mrs. Bread about the secret. Mrs. Bread asks how such information will help him, and Newman confesses that he wants to use it to hurt the Bellegardes as much, or more, than they have hurt him. He is angry for their placing him in a high position, connecting him with their friends, and then pushing him over the...
(The entire section is 931 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary and Analysis
Newman returns to Paris two days after receiving the letter from Mrs. Bread. He is still unsure what exactly he intends to do with the incriminating evidence, but he is enjoying the prospect of revenge. He is not sure how to go about revealing to the Bellegardes what he knows, as he is sure to be denied an audience with them. Sending a letter would lessen the pleasure of vengeance, as he wants to witness in person the destruction of his enemies.
Mrs. Bread soon arrives at his apartments, with the announcement that she has left the Bellegardes and is intent on taking up Newman’s offer of being his housekeeper. She has not, however, announced her intentions to Madame de Bellegarde, but is...
(The entire section is 933 words.)
Chapter 24 Summary and Analysis
Newman goes to the Sunday mass at the convent, hoping to at least hear Claire. The atmosphere in the chapel strikes him as cold. He sees in the other worshippers fellow mourners, grieving for the loss of the individuals cloistered behind these walls. He is disgusted with the “genuflections and gyrations,” seeing in them only the reason why he has lost Claire forever. Hearing the eerie chants, he can stand it no longer and exits the chapel. As he does so, he sees Madame de Bellegarde and Urbain, who see him as well. As he goes outside he sees Urbain’s wife and daughter in a carriage. The young marquise speaks to him, stating that she could not stand the chanting of the nuns, so she refused to go...
(The entire section is 952 words.)
Chapter 25 Summary and Analysis
Newman, intent on carrying his threat to the Bellegardes concerning his revelation to their friends of the guilt of the mother and son in the late marquis’ death, goes to visit Madame d’Outreville, the fat duchess he had previously met at the Bellegardes’ ball. They had struck up a conversation in the past, with the duchess telling the American a story of her mother’s snub of the Emperor Napoleon, so Newman hopes this friendship will continue. The duchess does not comment on his change of status with the end to his engagement to Claire de Cintré. Newman’s hope is justified, as the duchess engages him in social conversation until an Italian prince arrives. The duchess clearly wishes Newman to...
(The entire section is 911 words.)
Chapter 26 Summary and Analysis
Newman begins the healing process. He is able to think about the happy times he had in the past with Claire, but he is also beginning to accept what he cannot change. He examines himself in a type of psychoanalysis. He sees that he might have originally be more “commercial” than he believed himself, as the Bellegardes claimed. By being commercial to begin with he was able to see that he might be “too commercial.” He contemplates living out the rest of his life just as if he and Claire had married, thinking of what she would have approved or disapproved about his actions. Yet he realizes this would not be healthy.
All in all, he is glad he is who he is, rich and young. With this...
(The entire section is 924 words.)