"Her mother's white, intense, respectable countenance... suggested a document signed and sealed." (120)
When Newman first meets old Madame Bellegarde, this metaphor is used to describe his impression of her: her face and expression are compared to a signed and sealed document. This metaphor powerfully conveys Madame Bellegarde's reserved and aloof nature, as well as her emphasis on propriety and convention. The metaphor contrasts implicitly with the common comparison of someone to "an open book": she, on the other hand, is impenetrable, and it is virtually impossible to know what she is thinking or feeling. This idea of sealed documents also foreshadows the dark secret she is keeping, and the note that has the potential to be her downfall.
"She was the sweetest young creature in France, and knew as little of what was going around her as the lamb does of the butcher." (260)
Mrs. Bread uses this simile to describe what Claire was like in her youth to Newman. The simile of the lamb highlights Claire's purity, innocence, and trust. In the simile, the lamb is threatened, just as Claire was in danger of being mistreated by her family. The simile is even more complex when considering the fact that the butcher kills a lamb for profit, so he can sell the meat; similarly, Claire's mother and brother will sacrifice her happiness in exchange for economic gain.
Mrs. Bread (Metaphor)
"She reminded him of an ancient tabby cat, protracting the enjoyment of a dish of milk." (261)
Newman reflects on this metaphorical comparison as he watches Mrs. Bread tell him the story of the Bellegarde murder. The metaphor of the cat reveals Mrs. Bread's cunning nature; just as a cat quietly stalks its prey, she has carefully chosen this moment to reveal her secret and take her revenge. The second half of the metaphor reveals the pleasure this brings her; like Newman, she claims to be motivated by concern for Claire's well-being, but she also takes pleasure in the possibility of paying back Madame Bellegarde for the way she has been treated.
Monsieur de Bellegarde (Simile)
"Monsieur de Bellegarde... gave a smile as thin as the edge of a knife." (140)
This simile reveals the conniving, deceptive, and potentially violent nature of the eldest Bellegarde son. Although he is always very formal and careful to maintain social proprieties, such as smiling politely, Urbain Bellegarde is clearly putting on a false front to conceal his distaste for Newman. The simile comparing his smile to a knife foreshadows the revelation that he may have had a hand in his father's death, and also hints at the way he will later betray Newman by recanting his promise to support the courtship and ordering Claire to break her engagement.
Newman's Melancholy (Simile)
"His melancholy, which was settling into a secondary stage, like a healing wound." (301)
This simile is used to describe Newman's emotional pain after the end of his engagement and the death of Valentin, likening it to a physical wound. Just as a physical injury passes through a number of stages as it heals, Newman's sadness changes over time, shifting his preoccupations and experiences. The simile also works to reveal that his grief will not last forever, and that he will eventually recover, albeit likely with a permanently altered perspective, just as a wound heals but leaves behind a scar.
The American Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The American is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
This is primarily a piece of fiction however most writers draw on inspiration from their own experiences when writing a novel. The novel reflects James's preoccupation in this period with writing about Americans traveling abroad, a theme shared...