The American

How important are social expectations when choosing a lifetime partner? How can family obligations and gender roles affect marriage? These are questions author Henry James (1843-1916) explores in his 1877 novel The American. The novel follows the American character Christopher Newman as he attempts to navigate the intricacies of European society by courting a French noblewoman. The American explores themes of cultural divisions and misconceptions as well as the intersection between gender roles and familial obligations. 

The American The American

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Table of contents

    The Author of The American: Henry James

    The American was published by American-born British author Henry James in 1877. James was born in New York in 1843 into a moderately wealthy family. Although both his parents were from New York, the James family enjoyed travel and spent much time in Europe. James became comfortable with life in France, reportedly speaking more clearly in French than in English.

    The American is primarily based on James's experience as a "New World" American in "Old World" Europe. Set mainly in Paris, the novel follows an American who struggles with the dichotomy between the potential and novelty that characterizes American society and a European society steeped in tradition and historical values. Ultimately, James's protagonist Christopher Newman leaves Paris, unable to come to terms with the vastly different worlds.

    The American, the Louvre, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The setting for The American is based on Henry's time spent as an American visiting France.

    James himself fell in love with Europe and moved to London in 1876, just a year before The American was published. He spent the rest of his life in Europe, only traveling back to America twice before his death in 1916. James became an official British citizen in 1915, renouncing his American citizenship.

    The American Summary

    Below is a summary of Henry James's The American.

    Summary: The American
    Author of The AmericanHenry James
    GenrePsychological Fiction
    Summary of The American
    • The story follows the adventures of Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman who travels to Europe in search of culture and romance in the 19th century.
    • Newman is initially enamored with European culture and falls in love with a young French woman named Claire de Cintre. However, he soon discovers that the cultural and social barriers between the two of them are too great to overcome. Claire's family disapproves of Newman's background and fortune, and she ultimately chooses to honor her family's wishes and marry another man.
    List of main charactersChristopher Newman, Claire de Bellegarde, Valentin de Bellegarde, Urbain de Bellegarde, Noémie Nioche
    ThemesCultural divisions, misconceptions, gender roles, family obligations
    SettingEurope, 1868.
    • Throughout the novel, James highlights the stark differences between American and European culture, particularly in terms of social class and wealth. Newman is depicted as a rough-edged but honest and sincere American who struggles to navigate the complex social rules and hierarchies of European society.
    • Meanwhile, the European characters are often portrayed as shallow and pretentious, more concerned with their social standing than with genuine human connection.

    Christopher Newman is a wealthy American businessman in his thirties. After working since he was ten and fighting in the American Civil War, Newman has built a commercial empire for himself. The only thing he doesn't have is a wife, so he goes on a tour in Europe, hoping to find a woman to settle down with. At the start of the novel, Newman admires artwork in the Louvre when he meets the young artist Noémie Nioche.

    The Louvre is an art museum in Paris, housing famous works such as the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. It is the most visited art museum in the world.

    Noémie is copying prints of a famous piece, and Newman likes her art more than the original. He starts a conversation and buys her piece for a generous amount. While still wandering the art gallery, Newman sees his old war buddy, Tom Tristram. The two have dinner together with Tristram's wife.

    After Mrs. Tristram hears about Newman's desire to get married, she introduces him to Madame Claire de Cintré, a young, wealthy widow from one of the most aristocratic families in Paris. Newman first meets Claire at the Tristrams' house a few days later, and Claire invites Newman to call on her. When Newman inquires about Claire at her home, he meets her two brothers: Valentin and Urbain. Valentin is agreeable and offers to get Claire, but before he can do so, Urbain coldly tells Newman Claire is not home.

    The next day, Noémie's father, M. Nioche, brings Noémie's completed painting to Newman. M. Nioche expresses his fears that Noémie will not be able to marry well or live a full life because he cannot afford a large dowry for her. Newman, who has been learning French from M. Nioche, tells M. Nioche he will buy more paintings from Noémie so she can have a respectable dowry.

    The American, Woman painting, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Newman agrees to buy Noémie's art so she can have a dowry and marry a respectable man.

    Newman leaves to continue his tour of Europe for several weeks. When he returns, he once again attempts to see Claire. This time, she is at home with Valentin. Valentin quickly befriends Newman and promises to help in his efforts, although Valentin doesn't think Newman will be successful.

    Valentin reveals the scandal of Claire's previous marriage. When Claire turned 18, her mother and Urbain—the heads of the household—forced her to marry an old count because of his wealth and status. When the count died, Claire was set to inherit the fortune he made from his shady business operations. Claire was so aghast by the financial scandal, she revoked her claim to the money. Her family was dismayed, but they allowed her to follow through with it, given that she would submit to them fully for the next ten years.

    The American, Woman in black veil with red lipstick, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Claire became a young widow after her elderly husband's death.

    Undeterred by this information, Newman proposes to Claire. She does not accept the proposal but tells Newman he can continue to court her if he can go six months without mentioning marriage.

    Newman finally meets Urbain and Claire's mother, both of whom think he's socially unfit to marry Claire. Claire's mother finally agrees to consider his proposal when she learns of his wealth from his business in the United States.

    Shortly thereafter, a very upset M. Nioche visits Newman's hotel room. M. Nioche is worried about Noémie because she has been spending more time climbing the social ladder (as the mistress of rich men) than painting. Newman takes Valentin to confront Noémie, and Valentin is immediately smitten with her unwavering ambition and ruthless drive. Valentin decides to pursue the beautiful artist, but she is more interested in becoming a courtesan than settling down.

    A courtesan is a mistress or prostitute that commonly serves wealthy men.

    Newman follows through on his promise and gets to know Claire over a six-month period, never crossing her boundaries. After the six months expire, he again proposes, and she accepts. They are both thrilled, and the family begrudgingly throws a ball in their honor. The family's old maid, Mrs. Bread, slightly unsettles Newman when she pressures him to get married quickly. Nonetheless, the ball goes well, and Newman is excited to start his life with Claire.

    Newman attends an opera performance and is surprised to see Valentin and Noémie in the audience. Valentin gets in a fight with another man over Noémie, and the two agree to a duel as a matter of honor. Newman tries to talk Valentin out of it, but Valentin stubbornly refuses to listen and travels to Switzerland for the duel.

    While Valentin is in Switzerland, Newman visits Claire and finds her bags packed. She tells him she is leaving the country and the engagement is off. Still reeling from the news of his broken engagement, Newman receives word that Valentin has been fatally shot in the duel. Newman rushes to Valentin's deathbed.

    The American, Hamilton and Burr duel, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Like the famous historical duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (pictured), Valentin agrees to a duel of honor.

    The mortally-wounded Valentin apologizes for his family's behavior in forcing Claire to break the engagement. Feeling partially responsible, Valentin vows to help Newman get revenge. He tells Newman to talk to Mrs. Bread for blackmail on the family.

    After Valentin's death, Newman meets with the old maid. Mrs. Bread reveals Claire's mother killed Claire's father—she kept his medication from him and wouldn't let the doctors in until it was too late—because Claire's father was opposed to her marriage to the count.

    Newman takes the information to Claire's family, hoping to blackmail them. He plans to go to the grand duchess but ultimately decides he is above the manipulation and leaves Paris instead. Newman continues his tour of Europe, at one point seeing Noémie, who hangs off a wealthy man's arm, before returning to America. Newman eventually returns to Paris, hoping to get some closure. He learns from Mrs. Tristam that Claire is now a nun living in the Rue d'Enfer. After staring at the drab walls of her dreary convent, Newman realizes nothing is left for him in Paris. He burns the incriminatory evidence against her family and leaves the city forever.

    The American Characters

    Below are the most important characters in The American.

    Christopher Newman

    The protagonist of the novel, Christopher Newman is an ambitious, wealthy American searching for a wife. His self-made fortune has enabled him to retire young, but he is still considered a lower social status in Paris because he was not born into an aristocratic family.

    Newman is generally a good character, but he is at times stereotypically American and blinded by his desire. He sponsors a poor artist to help her make her own dowry through independent means, but she resents feeling like his charity case. Newman's primary objective is to marry Claire de Bellegarde, but her family constantly stands in his way because they believe he is socially below her. Newman considers blackmailing the family but ultimately realizes he is better than that. He returns to America jaded with Parisian society.

    Claire de Bellegarde

    A wealthy, young, aristocratic widow, Claire de Bellegarde is the object of Newman's affection. She is powerless against her family, namely her older brother and mother, who are controlling and manipulative. Claire was forced into an abusive marriage with a much older man, and she is now incredibly weary of marriage. She likes Newman, but pressure from her family keeps the two separated.

    Valentin de Bellegarde

    Claire's agreeable brother, Valentin de Bellegarde quickly becomes friends with Newman. Unlike the rest of the family, Valentin respects his sister's decisions and resents how prejudiced his mother and brother act. Valentin supports Newman's pursuit of Claire, even aiding Newman in his efforts. Valentin is passionate and reckless, falling in love with Noémie and entering a duel for her honor.

    Urbain de Bellegarde

    Claire's aloof older brother, Urbain de Bellegarde shares the duties as head of the household with his mother. He attempts to keep Newman away from Claire and blocks Newman's attempts to get close to her. Urbain is depicted as hostile, standoffish, and arrogant.

    The Marquise de Bellegarde (Claire's Mother)

    Claire's mother, The Marquise de Bellegarde shares the duty of head of household with her son, Urbain. Claire's mother upholds aristocratic traditions and expectations. She blocks Newman's marriage to Claire and believes Claire is socially superior to the American businessman. The Marquise killed Claire's father when he opposed her marriage to the count. The Marquise is worried the secret will ruin her family.

    Noémie Nioche

    A beautiful Parisian artist, Noémie Nioche comes from a lower aristocratic family that doesn't have much money. She feels the need to prove herself both in her art and in life, refusing any handouts from Newman. Instead of improving her artistry, Noémie spends her time climbing the social ladder as a courtesan.

    Monsieur Nioche

    Noémie's father, Monsieur Nioche worries about his daughter's future due to his own limited finances. He teaches French to Newman, who agrees to help the Nioches out financially. M. Nioche is constantly agitated by his daughter's antics but will do anything in his power to give her a good life.

    The Tristrams

    Tom Tristram and Newman fought together in the Civil War. Tom now lives in Paris with his wife, Lizzie. Lizzie becomes Newman's first friend in Paris and assumes the role of matchmaker, attempting to set Newman up with her childhood friend, Claire.

    Mrs. Catherine Bread

    The Bellegarde's old maid, Mrs. Catherine Bread loves Valentin and Claire but dislikes Urbain and Claire's mother. Mrs. Bread hopes Newman can bring some form of happiness to the family. She is also the only character that speaks out against the Bellegarde murder.

    The American Analysis

    The American is a highly symbolic novel that uses a melodramatic and comical tone to satirize social divisions between the Old World (Europe) and the New World (the United States).

    The American as a Satire

    The American is a satirical piece that uses expertly placed comedy to subtly poke fun at the European aristocracy and social divisions. Although the Bellegarde family is ruthless and dangerous (even killing their patriarch when his beliefs don't align with the other family members), their pomp and arrogance are almost comical. For example, James notes how

    Old Madame de Bellegarde stood up to give Newman her greeting, and there was that in the way she did so which seemed to measure narrowly the extent of her condescension." (Chapter 12)

    Madame Bellegarde treats Newman as though he exists in a completely different social caste from her own, not caring that his wealth puts him among the elite in America. Her pride over her family's social position keeps her children stuck in time and unable to grow. Urbain, for example, is destined to become a model of his mother, clinging to the status quo. Claire is forced to uphold the tradition of marrying for status, which proves to be disastrous to her emotional well-being. She eventually joins a convent as the only escape she can find from her family's and society's strict expectations of her. And Valentin, for his part, attempts to break the status quo by pursuing an artist in a lower social class and ends up dead. Steeped in tradition and the past, the Bellegarde family is unable to advance.

    The American, Nun praying in church, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Unable to go against her family's demands or exist in the world they have chosen for her, Claire becomes a nun and locks herself away in a convent.

    Noémie, on the other hand, represents societal change and a forceful break from the status quo. Although Newman offers her the opportunity to live a "normal" life in the nobility by providing her with a respectable dowry, she rejects his offer. Noémie is not happy to submit to being a man's wife and instead uses her charm and sexuality to become a courtesan. Her society may look down on her, but she becomes successful in her own right, traveling the world and being showered with gifts from wealthy men.

    While the Bellegarde family is stuck in the status quo, Noémie forges new paths for herself and challenges traditional views on marriage, success, and obligations.

    Old World vs. New World Symbolism

    The characters function as symbols for Old World society (in the case of the Bellegardes) and New World society (as in Newman and the Tristrams). The Bellegarde family, like European society, is governed by tradition. The family has strict expectations, dictated by the head of the household, and the other members are expected to be obedient and compliant. Like the culture of the Old World—with its kings and queens—power is passed down the family line. The Bellegardes are reserved and orderly yet duplicitous and hostile to outsiders. They exist how they have always existed and are resistant to change.

    The American characters, namely Newman and the Tristrams, do not have the centuries-old legacies that those in the Old World do. Like the United States, the characters are young and optimistic but also unsophisticated and brash. Newman and Mrs. Tristram do not fully understand the social nuances when Newman begins to pursue Claire. They naively believe if he is passionate and persistent, he will be successful.

    Newman goes first to Claire, instead of her family, to begin their courtship, starting off the relationship on an improper note. Then, in the middle of the Bellegardes' dinner party, Newman tells the family about his rise from poverty into success. Coming from a guarded background where status means everything, the Bellegardes are horrified by Newman's intimate reveal.

    Of course, these two worlds clash as Newman attempts to court someone from a culture entirely different from his own. James depicts American society as straightforward and abrupt, while European society is full of elaborate conventions. Like many Americans of the 19th century, Newman has an idealistic vision of Europe before he lives in the country. But James reminds readers that just because something is different does not mean it is better. Both New and Old World culture have their advantages and disadvantages.

    Convent Wall Symbolism

    When Newman returns to Paris for the final time, he decides he wants to see Claire. Mrs. Tristram attempts to talk him out of it, but Newman is desperate for closure. He walks to the convent she is now living in but only gets as far as the outside wall. He sees

    no symptoms of human life; the place looked dumb, deaf, inanimate... the barren stillness of the place seemed to be his own release from ineffectual longing. It told him that the woman within was lost beyond recall, and that the days and years of the future would pile themselves above her like the huge immovable slab of a tomb. These days and years, in this place, would always be just so gray and silent... He would never stand there again; it was gratuitous dreariness." (Chapter 26).

    The dreary walls of the convent symbolize the emotional difference between Claire and Newman. Unable to be with Newman and disobey her family or stay in her suffocating household any longer, Claire finds refuge in a convent. Now she is unreachable to both her family and Newman, and neither can hurt her again. The convent is impenetrable, and Claire finds refuge from society's expectations behind its walls.

    The American Themes

    The main themes in the novel are cultural divisions and misconceptions and the intersection between gender roles and familial obligations.

    Cultural Divisions and Misconceptions

    Newman travels to Europe under the misconception that everything will be richer, better, and more exciting than life in the United States. He spends his time in beautiful art galleries and extravagant cathedrals and comes to believe a European wife would offer him the same grandeur.

    When Newman begins to court Claire, he is oblivious to the social barriers that would separate a no-title American from French nobility. He (rightfully) believes the Bellegardes are treating him unfairly because he doesn't understand how important marriage is for social status in Europe. Newman's marriage to Claire wouldn't just affect the two of them as it often did in America. Instead, because of European customs, the marriage would impact the future of the entire Bellegarde family.

    The American, Heart symbol with hands on wedding day, StudySmarterFig. 6 - Claire cannot marry for love but must marry into social status to fulfill her familial obligations.

    Newman ultimately goes back to life in America disillusioned by European society. He realizes his original belief was an utter misconception: Europe isn't simply a more refined and advanced culture than America; it is an entirely different culture with complex customs and social ladders. Newman will always be seen as an outsider in Europe, no matter how wealthy he becomes in the United States, because he was not born into a centuries-old noble family.

    The Intersection Between Gender Roles and Familial Obligations

    When Claire ends her engagement with Newman, it is not because of a lack of love or happiness. Instead, their union was fated by gender roles and familial obligations. As the daughter of a noble family, Claire doesn't have much power over her own life. She is to marry whomever her parents choose and strengthen her family's legacy through a strategic marriage. Although she might love Newman, she cannot disobey her family. Because of her obligations and society's gender roles, the head of her household can tell her who she is to marry and who she is prohibited from seeing.

    The American - Key takeaways

    • The American was written by Henry James and published in 1877.
    • The novel follows American Christopher Newman as he navigates European society while pursuing a wife.
    • The American was influenced by James's time spent visiting Europe when he was an American.
    • The aristocratic Bellegarde family represents the status quo, while the painter and courtesan Noémie represents social change.
    • The main themes in the novel are cultural divisions and misconceptions and the intersection between gender roles and familial obligations.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The American

    What is The American by Henry James about?

    The American is about an American man who struggles to navigate the foreign European society while pursuing a wife. 

    Who wrote the novel The American?

    The American was written by Henry James. 

    When was The American written?

    The American was published in 1877, the year after James moved to Europe.

    What is the tone of The American?

    The tone of The American is comical and melodramatic. 

    What is the main message in The American?

    The main message is cultural differences can cause barriers between groups of people, even if they have commonalities. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: Henry James was born an American and loved traveling to France.

    What is Christopher Newman looking for in France? 

    What does Newman do for Noémie? 

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