Being an American, it was impossible you should remain what you were born, and being born poor - do I understand it? - it was therefore inevitable that you should become rich. You were in a position that makes one's mouth water; you looked round you and saw a world full of things you had only to step up and take hold of.
Valentin speaks these lines to Newman early in their friendship, assessing his situation, and contrasting it with his own. The contrast between the lives of the two men acts as an allegory for the different social norms and behavior in Europe and America. Valentin, who is obligated to make all choices with his family's status and reputation in mind, envies Newman's freedom to behave however he wants. The roots of the "American dream" (the idea that, through hard work, wealth could be obtained by anyone, no matter what conditions they were born into) were already in place by this time, and Newman's rags-to-riches story exemplifies this possibility. While the other members of the Bellegarde family sneer at Newman's lack of pedigree and history, Valentin expresses the perspective of a European aristocrat who might long for a life of greater freedom and choices.
I want a great woman. I stick to that. That's one thing I can treat myself to, and if it is to be had I mean to have it. What else have I toiled and struggled for all these years? I have succeeded, and now what am I to do with my success? To make it perfect, as I see it, there must be a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument. She must be as good as she is beautiful, and as clever as she is good. I can give my wife a good deal, so I am not afraid to ask a good deal myself. She shall have everything a woman can desire; I shall not even object to her being too good for me; she may be cleverer and wiser than I can understand, and I shall only be better pleased. I want to possess, in a word, the best article in the market.
Newman speaks these lines to Mr. and Mrs. Tristram early in the novel, when he explains his intention to marry and what he is looking for in a wife. The speech reveals that Newman, who at other points will pride himself on his progressive attitude towards marriage and criticize European customs, is no where near believing in equality between men and women. Comparing his ideal wife to a statue, he explicitly likens women to objects: beautiful possessions that a man can own and show off to highlight his own success. Newman believes that he is deserving of an attractive wife not because he is a good man who will be a loving partner, but because he is wealthy and successful, and sees a beautiful spouse as a reward for this success. By describing the "best article in the market" he highlights his consumer mentality.
It must be admitted, rather nakedly, that Christopher Newman's sole aim in life had been to make money; what he had been placed in the world for was, to his own perception, simply to wrest a fortune, the bigger the better, from defiant opportunity. This idea completely filled his horizon and satisfied his imagination. Upon the uses of money, upon what one might do with a life into which one had succeeded in injecting the golden stream, he had up to his thirty-fifth year very scantily reflected. Life had been for him an open game and he had played for high stakes. He had won at last and carried off his winnings; and now what was he to do with them?
This quotation gives the reader insight into Newman's character and also the confusion and restlessness that underlies his behavior throughout the novel. He is a very driven and ambitious character, but he has, by a relatively young age, achieved all his financial and career goals. Because he has focused more on obtaining money than enjoying it, he doesn't actually know how to spend it in a way that will make him happy, and turns out to not be very interested in many of the things (e.g., art, architecture, and design) that someone might typically spend their wealth on. This sense of purposelessness helps to reveal why Newman becomes so fixated on marrying Claire: she becomes a new goal and a new mark of success that he can strive after. Because Newman is more interested in pursuit than in enjoying what he has achieved, he becomes obsessed with winning Claire.
He believed that Europe was made for him, and not he for Europe. He had said that he wanted to improve his mind, but he would have felt a certain embarrassment, a certain shame, even - a false shame, possibly - if he had caught himself looking intellectually into the mirror. Neither in this nor in an any other respect had Newman a high sense of responsibility; it was his prime conviction that a man's life should be easy, and that he should be able to resolve privilege into a matter of course. The world, to his sense, was a great bazaar, where one might stroll about and purchase handsome things; but he was no more conscious, individually, of social pressure than he admitted the existence of a thing as an obligatory purchase.
This quotation reveals Newman's perspective and outlook. His claims about self-improvement and education are superficial; he is already very satisfied with himself. He does not want to shape his behavior and choices to any external dictates, and places a great emphasis on the freedom to do and have whatever he wants. Newman's lack of self-awareness is revealed by the fact that he does not recognize what a privileged position he is in as a result of being able to buy whatever he wants. His anger with Claire, and to a lesser degree, Valentin, for feeling obligated to rigidly follow expectations and the demands of others is rooted in his personal experience of being able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and in his perspective that this is the ideal way to live life.
"Why, you are not noble, for instance," he said.
"The devil I am not!" exclaimed Newman.
"Oh," said Bellegarde, a little more seriously.
"A title? What do you mean by a title?" asked Newman. "A count, a duke, a marquis? I don't know anything about that, I don't know who is and who is not. But I say I am noble. I don't exactly know what you mean by it, but it's a fine word and a fine idea; I put in a claim to it."
This dialogue between Newman and Valentin takes place as they are getting to know each other, and shows the difference in their values as well as Newman's arrogance. Valentine uses "noble" to mean someone of an established aristocratic family, likely with an inherited title such as Count or Duke. Whether or not someone can claim this status (which is also an accident of fate: someone is either born into a noble family or not, and can do nothing to alter this) is massively important in Valentin's world. Newman, possibly confusing the word with the more general meaning of "noble" as simply honorable or well-behaved, insists that he does in fact belong to this category. He cannot stand the idea that he could be excluded from something or not able to obtain it. He simultaneously claims not to care about social rank, but also wants to have his own status reaffirmed and will claim status even without understanding what is involved in that status. His insistence might also rest on what James Tuttletton describes as Newman's "natural simplicity and dignity, a moral purity and innocence, that identifies him as one of nature's noblemen - an American concept of status infinitely preferable to that nobility acquired merely through hereditary transmission" (113).
Newman made vague answers; he hardly heard her; his thoughts were elsewhere. They were lost in a cheerful sense of success, of attainment and victory. His momentary care as to whether he looked like a fool passed away, leaving him simply with a rich contentment. He had got what he wanted. The savour of success had always been highly agreeable to him, and it had been his fortune to know it often. But it had never before been so sweet, been associated with so much that was brilliant and suggestive and entertaining. The lights, the flowers, the music, the crowd, the splendid women, the jewels, the strangeness even of the universal murmur of a clever foreign tongue, were all a vivid symbol and assurance of his having grasped his purpose and forced along his groove.
This quotation describes Newman's feelings during the ball thrown by the Bellegarde family to celebrate his engagement. He is very happy and triumphant, feeling that he has achieved his goal despite all the obstacles he faced. The quote is revealing in that what makes Newman so happy at this moment is not his love for Claire and the prospect of a happy future with her: he isn't even thinking about her at this moment, revealing that what he actually cares about is winning. The quote also reveals how Newman's arrogance and self-absorption leads to his downfall; he is so preoccupied with his satisfaction that he overlooks both the vague sense that the European aristocrats are laughing at him (explicitly mentioned with the idea that he is a fool) and a bit later in the party will turn a blind eye to the suspicious conversations taking place with Lord Deepmere.
Everything was over, and he too at last could rest. He walked down through narrow, winding streets to the edge of the Seine again, and there he saw, close above him, the soft vast towers of Notre Dame... He sat a long time; he heard the far away bells chiming off, at long intervals, to the rest of the world. He was very tired; this was the best place he could be in. He said no prayers; he had no prayers to say. He had nothing to be thankful for, and he had nothing to ask; nothing to ask, because now he must take care of himself.
This quotation takes place during Newman's final visit to Paris. He has gone to the convent with half-formed notions of contacting or visiting Claire, but after realizing that she is permanently lost to him, he wanders through Paris despondently. The quotation features visual and auditory imagery, conveying a vivid sense of what Newman is experiencing. The religious imagery of the famous cathedral, the churchbells, and the possibility of prayer suggest that Newman is experiencing some sort of spiritual or philosophical shift. Unlike his persona throughout much of the rest of the novel, Newman here seems introspective and reflective; the trauma of losing Claire leads him to contemplate what his future holds. The moment is a barren one: he has no immediate plans or ambitions, he has achieved nearly everything he thought he wanted, and now he has no idea what will motivate him.
Newman was silent awhile, and seemed lost in meditation. "Is it possible," he asked at last, "that they do that sort of thing over here? that helpless women are bullied into marrying men they hate?"
"Helpless women all over the world have a hard time of it," said Mrs Tristram. "There is plenty of bullying everywhere."
"A great deal of that kind goes on in New York," said Tristram. "Girls are bullied or coaxed or bribed, or all three together, into marrying nasty fellows. There is no end of that always going on in the Fifth Avenue, and other bad things besides. The Mysteries of the Fifth Avenue! Someone ought to show them up."
''I don't believe it!" said Newman, very gravely. "I don't believe that in America girls are ever subjected to compulsion. I don't believe there have been a dozen cases of it since the country began."
This dialogue takes place between Newman and Mr. and Mrs. Tristram as he learns about Claire's history, and the relatively common aristocratic custom of marriages being orchestrated to secure or enhance the influence and money of a family. Newman finds this possibility shocking and completely foreign. Both of the Tristrams are more pragmatic and realistic, pointing out that coercion and manipulation can take many forms, and that this occurs among the wealthy everywhere. Newman reveals his idealized view of America in his insistence that such a thing could never occur there and is strictly a European custom. His scruples are ironic because before the end of the novel, he will try to exploit the amount of control the Bellegardes have over Claire to his own ends.
But he said nothing at all and at last his thoughts began to wander. A singular feeling came over him - a sudden sense of the folly of his errand. What under the sun had he to say to the duchess, after all? Wherein would it profit him to tell her that the Bellegardes were traitors and that the old lady, into the bargain, was a murderess? He seemed morally to have turned a sort of somersault, and to find things looking differently in consequence.
This quotation reveals Newman's moment of epiphany in which he abruptly loses interest in the plan of ruining the Bellegarde reputation by revealing the murder to influential social figures such as the Duchess. He had previously been very committed to this plan and excited about the vengeance he hoped to achieve. Interestingly, nothing external happens to make him change his mind: his outlook simply shifts with no warning, and he realizes the pursuit is meaningless. He seems to think that because he will not gain anything from this plan, there is no point in pursuing it. The moment reveals the collapse of Newman's hopes and ambitions, and the start of the listless malaise in which he will spend the rest of the novel.
I want to bring them down - down, down, down! I want to turn the tables upon them - I want to mortify them as they mortified me. They took me up into a high place and made me stand there for all the world to see me, and then they stole behind me and pushed me into this bottomless pit, where I lie howling and gnashing my teeth!
Newman gives this speech to Mrs. Bread when he is explaining why he wants her to reveal the secret to him and what he will use this information for. At this moment, Newman is extremely angry with the Bellegarde family. In expressing that anger, his major complaint is not that he has been parted from Claire; rather, he is focused on the blow to his pride. This reveals that he is ultimately less interested in Claire as an individual than in her as a mark of achievement. He feels betrayed and double-crossed, and his first impulse is to seek revenge. This desire is revealing in that prior to this, Newman has tried to take an enlightened and rational perspectives to questions of honor and revenge, deploring the duel that cost Valentin his life. Yet he also feels compelled to seek revenge when he feels insulted and mistreated, suggesting he is not as different as he would like to believe.
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...