As a young woman, Mrs. Bread wore a red ribbon and was accused by her mistress, Madame Bellegarde, of using it to try and attract her husband, the old Marquis. Mrs. Bread was deeply offended by this accusation and kept the ribbon, even as it faded, to remind her of the insult. The faded ribbon symbolizes the power of the past; things that happened a long time ago, such as the insult and the death of the old Marquis, can have consequences in the present moment. The ribbon also symbolizes how characters will desire revenge when they feel they have been mistreated. Both Newman and Mrs. Bread, in different ways, are mistreated because of the arrogance of the Bellegarde family and they therefore work together to take revenge and humiliate the family.
Noemie's Pug (Symbol)
When Newman unexpectedly runs into Noemie Nioche in a fashionable London park, she is very fashionably dressed and has a pet pug, also adorned with accessories, with her. At the time, lapdogs, especially pugs, were status symbols for wealthy ladies and a fashionable marker of their high status. The pug symbolizes that, despite Noemie's lower-class origins, she has achieved a position as Lord Deepmere's mistress that will allow her to enjoy luxuries and the latest fashions. This outward transformation functions as a kind of disguise, in which she becomes a "copy" of an aristocratic lady; as Wendy Graham writes, "One of Noemie's most threatening aspects is her ability to impersonate the demeanor and elegant appearance of the well born." For Newman, this knowledge confirms that the individuals who can successfully navigate and penetrate the rigid European class system are those who understand its rules and play by them, not those who, like himself, try to pretend that such systems should not exist.
The Convent Wall (Symbol)
When Newman hears that Claire is taking her final vows, he hurries back to Paris and rushes to the convent where she is living with some vague idea that he might be able to see her and change her mind. However, when he gets the,re he is confronted by a high, impenetrable, and imposing wall surrounding the convent. This wall symbolizes the impassable gulf between the two characters and the impossibility of them ever reuniting. It also symbolizes Newman's final defeat and his acceptance that he was not able to overcome the obstacles that stood between him and Claire.
The Moat Around Fleurieres (Symbol)
When Newman first goes to the Bellegarde family estate of Fleurieres, he is struck by the moat surrounding their ancient chateau. The moat symbolizes the long history of the family; it is antiquated and unnecessary at the time of the novel's action, but the Bellegarde roots stretch back to an era when a moat was a vital form of defense. The moat also symbolizes the protectionist mentality of the family: they maintain strict boundaries to ensure that outsiders, such as Newman, are not allowed to enter, and by doing so, they protect their status and reputation.
Clash Between America and Europe (Allegory)
In many ways, Newman represents the views and mindset associated with America: free enterprise, ambition, hard work, and a frank, open attitude of saying what he thinks. The Bellegarde family, with roots in both the ancient French and English aristocracy, represents an emphasis on tradition, customs, obedience to one's superiors, and proper social appearance at all times. The personal clash over whether or not Newman will be allowed to marry Claire thus functions as an allegory for whether or not American and European values might be able to successfully integrate.
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...