The American

The American Summary and Analysis of 22-26


During their meeting, Mrs. Bread gives Newman many details about her experiences working for the Bellegarde family. She is at first unsure about how much to reveal, but Newman argues that the mother and eldest son have ruined the lives of both Valentin and Claire, and that they deserve to be punished. Newman vows to use their secrets as a way to obtain vengeance.

Mrs. Bread first reveals that she has been resentful of old Madame Bellegarde ever since, as a young bride, the Marquise had accused her of trying to seduce her husband (the old Marquis de Bellegarde). She has often been dubious about the family and felt mistreated, but her strong love for Valentin and Claire encouraged her to stay. During the time that Claire's marriage to Monsieur de Cintre was being arranged, her mother and brother strongly supported it since de Cintre was very rich and also willing to accept only a small dowry. The old Marquis however did not like his prospective son-in-law and also knew the marriage would make his daughter unhappy. He quarreled about it with his wife, which exacerbated the ill health he was already experiencing. His illness got worse and his life was in danger; Mrs. Bread knew that if he died, there would be no further obstacles to the marriage.

Since she was assisting the doctor with nursing the Marquis, she was aware when he began to show signs of recovering. One night, when Mrs. Bread had been nursing him, the old Marquise and Urbain came into the room, and sent Mrs. Bread out. Old Monsieur Bellegarde tried to object to her leaving, but Mrs. Bread felt compelled to obey. Throughout the night, she felt anxious about her patient and finally returned to check on him. Urbain tried to prevent her from entering the room where his mother and father were alone, but then Madame Bellegarde emerged, explaining that while she was watching, her husband abruptly became much worse and has just died. Urbain went to get a doctor to confirm that death, and while Mrs. Bread and Madame Bellegarde observed the body, Mrs. Bread suspected that the Marquis was not actually dead yet. This suspicion was confirmed when, after Madame Bellegarde left the room and the two were alone, the old Marquis emerged from his stupor to explain that he had been killed by his wife. Mrs. Bread gave him paper and pencil and he managed to write a short note, which he gave to her, before becoming unconscious again.

When the old Marquise and her son returned with the doctor, the doctor confirmed that Monsieur Bellegarde was not yet dead, and was surprised that his condition worsened so shockingly. Over the next two days, he and other doctors worked to restore the health of the old Marquis, but Madame Bellegarde seemed to be able to exert a strange sort of power, and while she and others were attending to him, the old Marquis abruptly died.

Mrs. Bread has never shown the note to anyone, nor revealed her knowledge since she did not want to hurt the younger children, but she has known that both of them have long had suspicions about the death of their father. Newman is elated that he has such powerful information to use against the Bellegardes; when Mrs. Bread provides him with the note, it clearly states that the Marquis has been killed by his wife so that she can marry Claire to Monsieur de Cintre. He returns to Paris, where Mrs. Bread joins him as his new housekeeper. He also arranges to attend a mass at the Carmelite convent where Claire is now living. When he attends the service, Urbain and his mother are also there. Newman finds the atmosphere and experience oppressive and flees to a park next to the church.

In the park, he meets young Madame Bellegarde, Urbain's wife. He persuades her to lead the rest of the Bellegarde family to him so that he can confront them. He tells them he knows about their crime, shows them a copy of the note, threatening to share this information with the rest of the Parisian elite. They are stunned, but maintain their composure. The next day, Urbain comes to visit Newman to find out what it would take to ensure his silence. Newman asks for Claire but Urbain refuses, and the two part without coming to an agreement.

Newman's initial plan is to cause a scandal by revealing the crime of the Bellegardes to their social circle. He goes to visit the Duchess D'Outremont with the intention of telling her, but abruptly decides his plan is foolish. Instead, he goes to London. While there, he runs into Monsieur Nioche and Noemie, who is now having an affair with Lord Deepmere. Afterwards, he returns to America, where he restlessly travels between New York and San Francisco. There, he receives word that Claire has taken her final vows. He immediately returns to Paris and goes to the convent, only to realize that he has no way of accessing Claire and will never see her again.

Depressed, he goes to visit Mrs. Tristram, and he impulsively burns the note revealing the murder. Mrs. Tristram asks about the paper. Without revealing the exact nature of the secret, Newman explains that it was information he had been planning to use to ruin the Bellegarde family. He claims that he knows he frightened them, thus asserting his power, and therefore does not need to pursue a plot of vengeance any further. Mrs. Tristram points out, however, that the Bellegardes likely knew all along that Newman would not carry out his threat, ending the novel with the suggestion that Newman is not triumphant after all.


Mrs. Bread's narrative of the events surrounding the death of the old Marquis de Bellegarde abruptly introduce sinister and possibly even supernatural elements into a novel of primarily social realism. The murder plot is made even more unbelievable by both the false "first" death, the idea that the Marquis would be able to summon the strength to secretly record the identity of his killer, and most strikingly, Mrs. Bread's idea that rather than the somewhat plausible means of poisoning or strangulation, he was killed through some supernatural force of will exerted by Madame Bellegarde's gaze. This idea might simply be Mrs. Bread's superstition, and Newman is clearly not interested in the details or even the ethical import of what has happened, so much as in the knowledge that he now has a weapon he can use against the Bellegarde family.

The revelation of the crime, however, somewhat mirrors his engagement in that Newman ascribes too much value to an initial, superficial triumph (securing the information) without actually considering how he will take the following steps to secure his end goal. He assumes he will be able to easily blackmail the Bellegardes, and also that he can use the importance they put on reputation and social position against them. He does not expect that they will refuse to meet his request to encourage Claire to marry him after all. Moreover, Newman fails to see the central irony in his plan. Throughout the novel, he has strongly objected to the idea of a woman being told who to marry, and yet he is now perfectly content to have Claire's mother and brother insist on her marrying him, even at a moment when it seems that she would prefer to extricate herself from these power struggles altogether and live a life of seclusion.

Newman's sudden inability to reveal the secret surrounding the death of the old Marquis represents a mysterious change of course, which is never really explained, perhaps because he does not understand the decision himself. He has been so convinced that this action holds the key to peace of mind for him and then suddenly seems equally sure that it does not. The moment of this realization prefigures the idea of the epiphany that would be widely used by Modernist writers such as James Joyce: a moment in which a character achieves a moment of intense internal clarity that dramatically alters his or her perspective, often occurring silently in the middle of ordinary events. Newman is suddenly aware that his life will not improve if he reveals the crime. This realization may stem from the knowledge that Claire is lost to him in any case, or a dawning knowledge that he is engaging in the same sort of vengeful, ego-driven behavior that lead to Valentin's death.

The decision not to reveal the secret, however, does not bring Newman any immediate peace; rather, it sets in motion a long period of restless travel. His illusions about justice, merit, and integrity are further damaged by his run-in with the Nioche family and Deepmere in London. This arrangement makes it clear that contrary to Newman's idealistic beliefs, most people are looking to benefit themselves and fulfill their desires - whether material, sexual, or both - through whatever arrangement is most convenient. Newman's dissatisfied return to America indicates a problem that was emerging in an increasingly cosmopolitan and well-traveled era: individuals returning home to find that they no longer quite fit in, and now felt caught between two worlds. While Newman certainly never integrated into European culture and society, he now no longer feels quite at home in America either, and his restless drifting from place to place speaks to a lack of closure or the ability to move on.

This state of mind is most pointedly revealed when the news that Claire is taking her final vows abruptly sends Newman rushing back to Paris, apparently with some half-formed plan of intervening or reuniting with her. It is only a secondary, smaller epiphany when he confronts the barren walls of the convent that causes him to finally realize that he has lost her forever. This realization precipitates what might seem to be a gesture of moving forward and moving on, when Newman burns the note, thus removing the possibility of being able to support any accusations against the Bellegardes.

Yet, it is shrewd Mrs. Tristram who once again offers an alternative interpretation, one that seems to reduce Newman's triumphant perspective to one of having been fooled yet again. He reassures himself that he has been vindicated because he frightened the Bellegarde family with the power he wielded over them. However, Mrs. Tristram suggests that they were likely never seriously concerned at all, and that their beliefs that Newman would never reveal their secret have now been borne out. This idea suggests that Newman has once again been revealed as unsophisticated and inept at maneuvering complex schemes and psychological manipulation; he has been outfoxed again. His final gesture of looking to see if the note has been fully consumed by flames may be interpreted as regret for acting hastily, and not asserting his own power. However, the ambiguous and largely indeterminate ending reflects a tendency that appears widely in James's fiction in which "the lack of a traditional sense of closure, the frequently disappointing turn of events, and the reticence as regards the motive of decisions that are unaccountable in terms of traditional plot development, make it frequently hard for the reader to interpret the significance of the story" (Izzo).