The American: Chapter 11,12
Summary of Chapter XI
M. Nioche insists on continuing the French lessons with Newman. He mentions again that he cannot control his daughter's behavior. Newman goes to the Louvre to see if Noémie is doing the copies for him. He runs into Valentin de Bellegarde who is bored. Newman introduces him to Noémie, and they flirt. Noémie deliberately spoils her painting by making a red cross through it. Valentin asks to buy it anyway. “Everything I have is for sale,” she says (p. 109).
After Noémie leaves with her father, Valentin praises her as a great adventuress, and intelligent artist of life who knows how to sell her wares: “She has taken the measure of life, and she has determined to BE something—to succeed at any cost” (p. 110). He understands that she is heartless; and he also sees that the father is in on her schemes. Valentin is amused that Newman does not get this father-daughter scam. He says he will wait until Newman discovers it for himself.
Commentary on Chapter XI
Valentin understands immediately what kind of woman Noémie is, but he is attracted to her anyway. He admires her cleverness and ambition. The Nioches have been frustrated with Newman's naïveté. The father's comment that he cannot control his daughter is meant to give a hint about her availability. Noémie and Valentin, on the other hand, are two of a kind, and know what hints lie open to interpretation in their gestures. Noémie is obviously looking for a rich lover. Valentin knows how to play this game and offers to buy the ruined painting. Valentin falls with his eyes open.
Summary of Chapter XII
Newman is invited to a Bellegarde family dinner. The dinner is formal, and the marquis discusses the fine arts. Newman wonders why the marquis seems to fear him and keep him at arm's length. Newman dislikes him intensely; he is a “man of forms and phrases and postures” (p. 114). He intuits that the marquis is treacherous. In this company Newman finds it impossible to be himself. After dinner when the men retire to smoke, Valentin tells Newman he is accepted as a candidate for his sister's hand. The marquis agrees that their mother favors his suit. In the drawing room Urbain's wife says she has always stood up for Newman: “I said I was sure we could do what we chose with you” (p. 118). Newman denies that the family will be able to control him. The old Madame de Bellegarde warns him that they are putting themselves out for him. Her daughter, Claire, she says, is as proud as she is. The Bellegardes are all proud—proud together. As he is leaving Newman is informed by Valentin that Noémie has left home and become a notorious woman; the father seemed cheerful. Valentin says he wins the bet, and now he plans on seeing Noémie himself.
Commentary on Chapter XII
Claire begins to be more personal with Newman, but she admits she has very little courage. She means to warn him that rebellion against her family may be out of her range.
Newman gets a taste of family politics when he has to hear the formal acceptance of his suit from Urbain, the marquis. He has the appearance of a judge handing down a verdict. Despite Valentin's jokes, the atmosphere is very heavy, and Newman resents being made to play a petitioner. He wants to approach Claire without the interference of her family. He decides to take whatever they dish out to win her approval. Urbain makes sure that the disapproval of Newman's background in trade is made plain to him. The marquis phrases the acceptance like a clever lawyer, and Newman is not sure what he means. Newman is aware of the unpleasant condescension of Urbain and the cutting irony of Valentin. The two brothers fight in front of him.
Newman's designs are contrary to what the family expects. They want to absorb him and his money and use him as a puppet to the mother's will. Newman however tells Urbain's wife that he intends to remove Claire from the family and take her to America. He refuses to form an alliance with her because that would drag him into family politics. He has to fight to keep a clear path to Claire herself and not get entangled with her family.
Noémie's fall into disgrace suits Valentin who feels free to pursue her now. Newman begins to wonder if French honor and American honor are different.
Text: James, Henry, The American, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, #177, www.gutenberg.org, January 2, 2007.