The American: Chapter 17,18
Summary of Chapter XVII
Newman likes the opera and goes to see “Don Giovanni.” Urbain de Bellegarde and his wife are there in their box, and NoémieNioche is extravagantly dressed sitting with a young man. Valentin is sitting in a gloomy mood in the foyer. Newman tries to save him again by offering him a job; he hates to see him wasting himself on Noémie. Valentin insists on going to Noémie's box to annoy the young man she is with. The young man is drunk and insulting and has supplanted Valentin in Noémie's affections. The two men quarrel, and Noémie is happy that they are fighting over her. Newman tries to talk Valentin out of fighting a duel, to no avail. It will take place in Geneva. When he visits Madame de Cintré the next day, she is crying. She has seen Valentin and has a premonition that something bad will happen. Newman is honor bound not to tell her about the duel.
Commentary on Chapter XVII
Valentin complains about Noémie's behavior, but he is smitten. He dislikes the way she treats her father as a doormat. Newman in vain tries to talk him out of his folly. From his point of view, Valentin is wasting his life when he could have a career. He suggests banking, but Valentin laughs, for any work to a gentleman is demeaning.
Newman thinks Valentin's world of Paris fashion is small; in America he could have a whole continent for his ambition. Newman fantasizes about taking Claire and Valentin to America, certain this is what they need to cure their gloomy useless lives as French aristocrats. He is horrified at Valentin's sense of honor and willingness to risk his life for Noémie. The opponent is StanislasKapp of Strasbourg, the son of a German brewer. This is ironic, for the opponent is a drunken nobody, and the object of the duel is a mistress. Newman tries to act as an older brother for Claire's sake, but he also loves Valentin as a friend.
Newman calls the duel a theatrical scene and calls dueling “corrupt” behavior (p. 179). The only one who will win is Noémie. It will make her reputation in the fashionable world.
Summary of Chapter XVIII
The next day Newman visits Madame de Cintré only to see the family coach ready to leave. Mrs. Bread says the Countess is leaving town and has left Newman a letter. She is going to Fleurières, the country house near Poitiers. Mrs. Bread warns Newman that Claire is unhappy and takes him to see her. Claire is in a room with Urbain and her mother.
He holds her hand, but she blurts out that something has happened; she cannot marry him. She is leaving for the country to be alone and merely explains that she is ashamed. She has a tragic look and says she has given him up.
Newman says the marquise promised not to interfere. Urbain says he and his mother have not interfered, merely used their authority. Claire says that she is afraid of her mother. The Bellegardes give no reason for their refusal except that he is in business, instead of noble birth. He accuses them of bullying Claire. He refuses to give her up and says he will follow her to the country.
Newman is outraged but does not follow Claire immediately. He goes to Mrs. Tristram who tells him they want her to marry Lord Deepmere. He receives a telegram from Valentin in Geneva, saying he is dying from the duel and wants Newman to be with him at the end. Newman sends this news to Claire, telling her he refuses to give her up and will come as soon as he can.
Commentary on Chapter XVIII
Newman feels the presence of the mother and older brother as something evil. Claire looks at him with her whole soul in great distress. She asks only to be allowed to go in peace. Newman accuses the marquise of commanding Claire to break the engagement. The marquise admits she has power over her children, and he can do nothing about it. Newman is in shock and accuses the mother of foul play. He sees Claire is afraid. He feels helpless before the look of terror on her face.
The Bellegarde family is imploding at this point. The two elders have stopped the marriage; Claire has run away; and Valentin lies dying. The two younger Bellegardes are the only lovable ones in the family, and they are being sacrificed to family honor. Newman will be horrified at their fates, especially from his point of view as a modern democratic man. The tale that unfolds is not unlike a gothic horror story from the eighteenth century. It is ironic that the family relies on a code of honor but has broken faith with Newman. For them, he does not count. He is only an American.
Text: James, Henry, The American, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, #177, www.gutenberg.org, January 2, 2007.