Class is a major theme in the novel; the social classes of different characters make a major difference in the options they have available, and how they operate in the world. For working-class characters like the Nioche family, a lack of choices and a desire to rise in the world pushes them to become greedy and grasping. Class is even more determining than actual income; the Bellegarde family lacks income, especially in order to maintain their lifestyle, but occupies a prestigious class position. At the same time, this high-ranking social class also limits their options: neither Claire nor Valentin can pursue the romantic partners they might wish to. Because Newman is relatively innocent about how much class can determine someone's life, his discovery of the European class system simultaneously reveals it to readers.
Travel and Tourism
Newman's decision to travel to Europe for pleasure and to experience culture and history marks him as a tourist, a category that had only developed fairly recently when James wrote his novel. Traveling between Europe and America had to take place via boat, and this remained expensive, time-consuming, and slightly dangerous. However, for many wealthy Americans, Europe remained a highly desirable location to visit. The experience of a greater number of travelers entering Europe also led to the development of modern tourist culture: expectations around which sites to see, a sense of obligation about getting the most out of the experience, and an often disorienting disconnect between expectation and reality.
Parents, and the control or lack of control they exert over their children's lives, is a major theme in the novel. Madame Bellegarde strongly dominates the lives of her children, especially her daughter. Claire expresses repeatedly that her loyalty and deference to her mother requires her to do whatever she is told, regardless of whether it makes her unhappy. On the other hand, the relationship between Noemie and her father reveals that parents can also lose control of their children and actually be dominated by them: Monsieur Nioche is uncomfortable and ashamed of his daughter's behavior, but cannot do anything to change it. In both cases, the European characters maintain close relationships with their parents, suggesting strong ties to family and history, while Newman, tellingly, is an orphan who has largely been responsible for his own well-being and upbringing.
A strong desire to purchase objects, and to treat other individuals as if they are also objects, can be detected in Newman's character and behavior. Rather than simply appreciating the aesthetic experience of Paris, he wants to own things that he believes will give him an aura of sophistication. In the novel's opening scene, he is more interested in purchasing unskilled copies of paintings rather than appreciating the actual masterpieces surrounding him. Newman's attitude towards obtaining a wife also suggests that he sees women largely as beautiful, decorative objects that he can obtain in exchange for a portion of his wealth.
The novel opens in the Louvre museum where Newman is surrounded by famous paintings, revealing that art is a major theme in the novel. While Americans were often mistrustful of Europe, seeing it as decadent and outdated, they could not deny that most of Western art history had its roots there, and visiting museums, churches, and other cultural sites to view famous artworks usually formed a large part of the expected itinerary for a trip to Europe. Newman goes through the motions of looking at and learning about art, but he never really develops a true aesthetic sensibility. When Babcock rebukes him for not taking art seriously enough, Newman is merely amused, preferring to focus on pleasure.
One of the tensions surrounding cultural perceptions of the differences between Europeans and Americans was the idea that Europe remained trapped by outdated customs and beliefs, while America was celebrated (by Americans) for more modern approaches. Newman reacts with horror to ideas such as arranged marriages, duels, and an obsession with titles and inherited wealth; he sees these as signposts of a much older time which should by now have become completely irrelevant. However, many of the things Newman sees as being marks of a superior modernity which exists in America, such as a greater equality between men and women, and the possibility of earning wealth rather than having to be born into it, are revealed to be illusions or idealizations of reality.
In the small and select world of Parisian high society, reputation is the greatest source of power and influence. Even though the Bellegarde family is not wealthy, they have an ancient and well-established reputation which makes them socially important. By the same token, Newman's wealth does not guarantee him any particular social position because he is perceived as an unsophisticated, American upstart. This reliance on reputation is what makes the secret surrounding the death of the old Marquis so dangerous; the threat is never legal consequences, but rather social ostracism if their secret is ever discovered.
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.