The American

The American Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-8


Since Madame de Cintre is spending the summer in the country and is not available to spend time with him, Newman spends the summer months traveling around Europe. He befriends another American traveler, an earnest young minister named Babcock. They travel together for a while, but Babcock gradually becomes distressed by what he perceives as Newman's lack of serious aesthetic principles and emphasis on enjoying himself.

In Venice, Babcock abruptly leaves, announcing that he can no longer travel alongside Newman. Newman is bemused but not upset by this. He returns to Paris in the autumn.

Upon his return, Mrs. Tristram tells him that Madame de Cintre is unhappy but required to be subservient to her family. Mr. and Mrs. Tristram tell him that her family hopes to marry her to a wealthy man for their own gain, which horrifies and disgusts Newman. He goes to visit Claire again and gradually becomes acquainted with her and the rest of the Bellegarde family: her elder brother Urbain, and his wife young Madame Bellegarde, her rakish younger brother Valentin, and her strict, aloof mother, old Madame Bellegarde.

He becomes quite close with Valentin, but when he explains to him his hopes of marrying Madame de Cintre, Valentin is surprised and convinced that the marriage will not be possible, since, despite his wealth, Newman is not an aristocrat. The conversations between the two men reveal the gulf between their values and worldviews.

Newman's commitment to winning Claire's heart is strengthened as he learns more about her history from Valentin. She was forced into an unhappy marriage with a much older, wealthy man at a young age. After his death, she learned that he had acquired his money as a result of questionable business practices. Horrified, she refused to claim her inheritance from him.

Her family opposed this choice and Claire finally struck a bargain, agreeing to ten years of total obedience in exchange for rejecting the fortune, with the only exception being that she cannot be forced to marry. Valentin stresses the value his family places on their heritage and status, and makes it clear that he thinks it is unlikely Newman will be able to marry Claire.

He is impressed however by Newman's willingness to pursue this aim and tells him that he will support his cause.


Newman's travels around Europe highlight both the good and bad parts of his nature. He is easygoing, cheerful and warm-hearted, but he also lacks intellectual seriousness and any real desire to reflect on what he is experiencing or appreciate subtle nuances. This contrast is highlighted in his interactions with Babcock, who functions as a kind of parody of an equally unsophisticated American who reacts in the opposite way: by taking on a pretentious belief in the "immense seriousness of Art."

James's novel is deeply concerned with the figure of the tourist at a historical moment when it had only recently become relatively easy to travel for pleasure, and individuals were traveling more than ever before. This led to cultural anxieties about the best way to make the most of travel, and how one was expected to behave while abroad. While the novel certainly offers a critique of European values and behaviors, it is also critical of the ignorance and arrogance many of the American visitors display.

Newman's ignorance and arrogance about the social norms of his own country are further displayed when he discusses Claire's situation with Mr. and Mrs. Tristram upon his return. He naively insists that a woman being pressured into marriage by her family is a phenomenon that could only take place in Europe, assuming that America is more modern and liberal, and therefore superior. This perspective overlooks a number of realities: first, that women might be coerced in a number of ways, including ones more subtle than outright commands from their families, which, Mr. Tristram points out, happens regularly in American families. Second, women themselves (as the character of Noemie reveals) may have more agency than Newman realizes, and may be just as ambitious as their families. These comments are also ironic because Newman himself thinks largely of women as objects to be purchased and displayed, yet is self-congratulatory about his ideas of protecting women from what he sees as old-fashioned, barbaric practices.

The differences between European and American outlooks are highlighted particularly in the friendship that springs up between Newman and Valentin. The two genuinely like each other, and are curious about each other's experiences. Valentin envies Newman his freedom, social mobility, and willingness to optimistically believe that people can mould their lives according to their aspirations and wishes. At the same time, Valentin believes he knows better and displays a world-weary cynicism about the responsibilities and obligations that come with status and social position. Newman is surprised by Valentin's somewhat effeminate poses and mannerisms in contrast to his own more rigidly defined masculinity, and by Valentin's passive and languid outlook on life. At the same time, Newman can tell that Valentin is highly sophisticated and sensitive to nuances of situations that are lost on himself.

These abstract differences in perspectives between Europeans and Americans, and individuals from aristocratic and commercial backgrounds, are given greater urgency and specificity by Newman's goal of winning Claire de Cintre as his wife. It is not entirely clear why he becomes increasingly attached to this outcome; Claire is often aloof in her behavior towards him, and strict social protocols prevent the two from getting to know each other in anything other than a formal way. The idea of her beauty and status, and likely the fact that she is presented as unattainable, makes Newman all the more committed to pursuing her. He also develops something of a savior complex towards her, believing he can give her a better life, and that he therefore has a kind of moral duty to pursue her, eliding the self-interest that is also motivating him.