Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665
*Europe. Europe represents culture and sophistication, but also mystery and corruption. Christopher Newman (the “American” of the title), a self-made American millionaire educated in the school of hard knocks, comes to Europe to complete his cultural education and perhaps to find a wife. He visits hundreds of notable churches and a host of museums and palaces. Though he seldom fully understands the great works of art and architecture that he sees, he is willing to concede their worth. Likewise, he never fully understands the members of the aristocratic Bellegarde family or their French Catholic society; in the end, they defeat him.
*Louvre. Famous Parisian art museum that occupies a former royal palace. Henry James uses the museum to display the lack of cultural sophistication of Newman and his American acquaintance, Tom Tristram. Newman prefers badly painted copies of a pretty aspiring artist to the priceless originals, and Tom Tristram, visiting the Louvre for the first time though he has lived for six years in Paris, wonders aloud if the paintings on the walls are originals or copies.
Tristram home. House in a quarter of Paris that is relatively new during the 1860’s—the period in which the novel is set. Like the French aristocrats’ gray stone mansions in the Faubourg St. Germain, the newer houses in the Tristrams’ neighborhood have pompous white facades, though as yet unweathered. Inside, the modernity and hospitality of the Tristrams’ house contrast sharply with the Bellegardes’ two-hundred-year-old mansion. The Tristrams’ house has gaslights and central heating, as well as an open invitation to Newman, who visits often. There Newman also finds the friendship of Mrs. Tristram, who tries to educate him in the ways of French society. The Tristrams’ home radiates warmth and hospitality.
*Rue de l’Université
*Rue de l’Université. Street in the Faubourg St. Germain, the aristocratic quarter of Paris, where the Bellegardes’ mansion is located. James no doubt chose this name because it is here that the Bellegardes teach Newman the most painful lesson of his life. The houses in this quarter, with their massive facades of gray stone, represent for Newman the secrecy and privacy of the closed world of the European aristocracy. The houses contrast sharply with his own egalitarian ideal of wealthy homes ablaze with the light of hospitality. Three steps—one each to suggest Valentin de Bellegarde, his elder brother Urbain, and their mother, the three obstacles Newman must surmount—lead from the courtyard into the house. Inside, the vestibule is cold, and the house is dimly lit, suggesting not only the cold hearts and the mystique of the Bellegardes, but also how far the family’s fortunes have fallen.
Fleurières. Late sixteenth century country home of Claire de Cintré’s Bellegarde family. The timeworn château, with its stained bricks, deep-set windows, and cracked causeway, symbolizes the antiquity, mystery, and fallen fortunes of the Bellegarde family. Like the Bellegardes themselves, the house is ugly but still impressive. Its grand central portion is flanked by two low wings, suggesting the beautiful Claire guarded by her mean and low keepers, Urbain de Bellegarde and his mother. The two arches of the bridge also suggest Urbain and his mother, who bar Newman’s path to Claire. Inside, the main drawing room is grand and imposing but nearly empty, as the aristocratic Bellegardes are morally bankrupt. The château also gives Newman the feeling of a museum, suggesting that members of the European aristocracy, typified by the Bellegardes, are themselves museum pieces.
Newman’s apartment. Residence that Newman rents in Paris. Huge and gilded, the apartment symbolizes Newman’s nouveau riche understanding of culture. The sophisticated Valentin de Bellegarde nearly laughs aloud at the apartment’s enormous and gaudy parlor. Parlors should be small and intimate, but this one, as Valentin notes, is large enough to be a ballroom or a church. The apartment shows that while Newman is wealthy, he is not yet cultured.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 271
Cargill, Oscar. The Novels of Henry James. New York: Hafner Press, 1971. An analysis of the sources of the novel, including Ivan Turgenev, French theater, and James’s own inspiration. Defines the international novel in which a character possessing one set of cultural values is confronted with a different set of values.
James, Henry. The American. Edited by Gerald Willen. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972. Includes the text of the later, revised version of the novel, a preface by James, the ending from the original version of the novel, a letter from James to his editor William Dean Howells, and ten interpretative essays by different critics on subjects as diverse as the revision, point of view, romantic elements, and the American self-image.
Lee, Brian. The Novels of Henry James: A Study of Culture and Consciousness. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. Argues that James was interested in the concept of consciousness and its response to culture. Thematically, The American, with its confrontation between an innocent American and sophisticated Europeans, opposes moral consciousness and social consciousness. Lee notes James’s own later assessment of the novel: that it violated the reader’s sense of how things really happen.
Long, Robert Emmet. Henry James: The Early Novels. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Places The American in the context of James’s early career. Provides basic information about the novel’s magazine serialization, James’s subsequent revision, and the novel’s influences. The roles of romance, melodrama, and realism are discussed.
Powers, Lyall H. Henry James: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. Discusses the theme, nomenclature, humor, gothic elements, and characterization regarding Christopher Newman.
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