The American: Chapter 19,20

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Summary of Chapter XIX

In Geneva, Newman is met by one of Valentin's two friends who are nursing him of his wound. He is dying and has been given the last rites. His mother has been notified. He has breakfast with the friends, who consider dueling a natural activity. They deplore that the brewer's son was so accurate in his aim. It would have been more gentlemanly to cause less damage. Newman is in grief, for he is losing both Claire and her brother.

Newman speaks to Valentin who has been staying alive to see him. Valentin wants word of his sister. Newman says she is at Fleurières and confesses about the break-up. Valentin is ashamed that his family has gone back on their word of honor. He wants to give Newman the family secret to use against them. He confesses there was foul play in his father's death at Fleurières. Mrs. Bread will tell him what happened and then he can be avenged.


Commentary on Chapter XIX

Newman is bitter about Valentin's death and tells him so. Newman is the voice of common sense, but the plot shifts into the gothic romance with deathbed confessions and family secrets. A mysterious death by foul play in an old mansion by a villainous mother and brother, and a beautiful woman in distress—these are stock plot points from romance. What began as a comedy of manners has turned dark.

Newman is aghast at the dueling ideas of Valentin and his friends. He saw men die in war, but this chivalrous code of honor seems silly in the modern age. The brewer's son took the duel too seriously since he was not a gentleman, but then, Valentin was stupid enough to pick a fight with a lower-class tradesman. The Bellegardes are fighting the inroads of the middle class. The time of the aristocrat is over, but the marquise refuses to relinquish power. The sinister nature of  the mother, however, seems to go beyond class warfare. Claire and Valentin find tragic ways to elude her grasp.


Summary of Chapter XX

Newman leaves Geneva as soon as Valentin dies so he will not meet the Bellegardes as they arrive. He sends Claire an account of her brother's death. He is to be buried at Fleurières, and Claire tells Newman when the funeral will be held. Newman travels to Fleurières, a small village where there is a crumbling castle on a hill. He attends Valentin's funeral. Two days later he calls on Claire at the family château, and she is changed, wearing mourning, and looking like a nun.

Claire admits that she has wronged Newman and that she feels it. He tells her to blame her family not herself. He wants to know why she is afraid of her mother. She does not say, but although she is legally free, she does not feel emotionally or morally free. She says there are things she has to deal with that he knows nothing about. There is a curse on her house, and she is going to go into a convent. There she will be safe, out of the reach of her family. Newman takes her in his arms and kisses her. At first she starts to respond; then she forces herself to leave. He is in shock.


Commentary on Chapter XX

Claire tells Newman that any contact between them will be a distress to her. She takes all the blame for the break, saying she never should have listened to him. Now she has to give him up. Newman tries to convince her she does not have to obey her mother.

Claire insists that part of the problem was that Newman put her on a pedestal. She claims she is cold and selfish and proud. She would have had to live in defiance of her family, and she is unable to do this. Newman accuses the whole family of aristocratic pride, but Claire hints the trouble is beyond that. She is afraid of the hidden curse on the house. She and Valentin have tried to not know what it is, but it threatens all of them. It has killed Valentin. There are things forbidden to ask about. She breaks down sobbing. When she says she will go into a convent, Newman is struck with horror, as though she were going to prison or to an execution. His dream of rescuing her is destroyed. 

Text: James, Henry, The American, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, #177,, January 2, 2007.

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