The American

The American Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What differences does the novel reveal between Americans and Europeans?

    The novel suggests that both Americans and Europeans have distinct but important shortcomings. As Tessa Hadley explains, "From his first experiences of living alone in Paris in French culture – its moeurs, its talk, its literature – had suggested itself to the young James as an essential counterpoint to his own Anglo-Saxon background." Newman, as the archetypal American tourist, finds it difficult to understand the subtleties of art and history, and compares all of the customs and practices he sees to his own homeland, usually in favor of the latter. He takes great pride in what he thinks are liberal and progressive points of view, and freedom. However, he is self-absorbed, gullible, and not sensitive to details and nuances. The Europeans, typified by the Bellegarde family, are very refined and sophisticated, good at calculation and discretion. They are at the same time very rigid, close-minded, and obsessed with maintaining tradition. The only character in the novel who seems to successfully bridge the two groups is Mrs. Tristram, who combines aspects of both cultures and can see the strengths and weaknesses of both.

  2. 2

    What is Newman's attitude towards women?

    Newman's attitude towards women may seem progressive at times, but remains ultimately condescending and objectifying. He strongly objects to practices which seem to disempower women, such as forced marriages and having to live as a nun, and celebrates America for offering what he perceives as a culture where women enjoy freedom. However, his speeches and behavior, especially about his hopes surrounding his future marriage, reveal that he values women primarily as aesthetic objects which can be essentially purchased by wealthy men. He is also not particularly interested in getting to know Claire as an individual, focusing instead on her beauty, status, and the prestige which would come with winning her hand in marriage.

  3. 3

    Why does Newman ultimately not reveal the Bellegarde family secret?

    Newman's reasons for not revealing the secret of the death of the old Marquis are never made entirely clear. He seems to realize that whether or not he reveals the secret, he will never be with Claire, which makes revenge seem futile. More importantly, whether or not he reveals the secret, he will not achieve what he truly desires: for the Bellegarde family to respect him and treat him as an equal. He can shame and punish them, but he cannot force their trust and respect, which is what he really craves. The pain of losing Claire is less than the blow to his ego. Once this becomes clear to him in a sudden moment of epiphany, he loses interest in pursuing his revenge scheme.

  4. 4

    Why does Valentin not share the same values and outlook as the rest of his family?

    In contrast to the icy reserve of Urbain and old Madame Bellegarde, Valentin is very warm and accepting of Newman, and genuinely supports his courtship of Claire. He even envies Newman's freedom and lack of social inhibition. Valentin's values might simply be a result of his personality, revealing that not all Europeans are alike, and allowing James to avoid drifting too far into the reproduction of stereotypes. Valentin as a younger son is also relatively disenfranchised by the customs that govern his family: his elder brother inherited the estates, wealth, and title from his father. Valentin's relatively shabby apartment indicates that even he is cut off from the decaying grandeur of the rest of the family. Because the emphasis on inheritance and the continuation of the family name really only benefits the eldest son, Valentin is more inclined to be critical of these practices, and long for the possibilities he might experience if he could pursue his own choices with greater freedom.

  5. 5

    Why does Claire enter a convent after breaking off her engagement?

    Claire's motivations for becoming a nun after the end of her engagement are ambiguous, since readers never fully know what she is thinking and feeling. Significantly, this decision represents her one act of defiance against her family. Her mother and brother are not happy that she is becoming a nun, presumably because this will prevent them from marrying her off to Deepmere or another wealthy suitor. Claire likely insists on this decision for exactly this reason: paradoxically, entering the convent and renouncing all of her apparent freedom will protect her freedom to not be pressured into a marriage. She may also feel ashamed for the genuine attraction she seems to have felt either towards Newman or the life he could offer her, and wants to repent for it. A traditional Catholic belief held that prayer and sacrifice, such as becoming a nun, could offset past sins, and Claire may feel the need to atone for the sins of her family through her own self-sacrifice.