The American

The American Literary Elements


Fiction; Social Realism; elements of the Gothic

Setting and Context

The novel primarily takes place in Paris, beginning in the spring of 1868. Some of the action also occurs in surrounding European locations.

Narrator and Point of View

The novel is narrated in the third person and told from the point of view of Christopher Newman. The narrator often manages to convey subtle criticisms of Newman's perspective and choices.

Tone and Mood

The tone begins with a focus on social critique and occasionally satire as the first portion of the novel reveals the lack of self-awareness displayed by both American and European characters. In the latter part, the tone switches to suspense and horror as Newman uncovers the Bellegarde secret, and tries to decide how to use this information.

Protagonist and Antagonist

Christopher Newman is the protagonist; old Madame Bellegarde and to a lesser extent her eldest son Urbain are the antagonists.

Major Conflict

The major conflict occurs between Newman, who insistently wants to marry Claire de Cintre, and her mother and eldest brother, who want to prevent this marriage from occurring.


The climax of the novel occurs when Newman, on the verge of revealing the murderous actions of the Bellegardes to an influential woman, abruptly decides that it will be no use for him to share this information.


The dark and sinister natures of the Bellegarde mother and son are foreshadowed by their icy, aloof, and treacherous behavior. A more explicit foreshadowing of their violent actions occurs at the engagement ball when Urbain's wife, young Madame Bellegarde, explains the theme of her fancy dress costume as "murder by moonlight."




Henry James uses a number of allusions, such as when he has Valentin explain his relationship with Claire by saying, "we are such a brother and sister as have not been seen since Orestes and Electra," which refers to two characters from ancient Greek tragedy. At another point, Claire is referred to as a "super-subtle Parisian" alluding to Shakespeare's Othello, where Desdemona is called a "super-subtle Venetian." These allusions often serve to display the culture and knowledge of the speaker, especially in contrast to Newman who simply says what he means without recourse to allusions.


See section on Imagery.


The novel's greatest paradox is that what Newman perceives as a triumphant show of defiance turns out to be evidence that he was manipulated. He thinks, or tries to tell himself, that he asserted his power over the Bellegarde family, and because of this show of dominance, he was vindicated. It therefore doesn't matter that he ended up not pursuing his plan to publicly disgrace them. However, as Mrs. Tristram probably rightly points out, the family most likely knew he wouldn't follow through with his plan and were never frightened of him at all.


Valentin's desire for Noemie, a working-class woman, acts as an exaggerated reverse parallel of Newman's desire for Claire, a woman who significantly outranks him in social position. While Valentin fatalistically accepts the class division that restricts the nature of his relationship with Noemie, Newman defiantly insists on believing that he will be able to overcome all obstacles and win Claire as his wife.

Metonymy and Synecdoche