The American: Chapter 21,22
Summary of Chapter XXI
Newman is given up to grief but cannot leave the neighborhood. He feels he is a good man wronged. He does not want to give up without a fight. He thinks of Valentin's last hint about the family secret. He seeks out Mrs. Bread. She tells him that Claire has returned to Paris and has gone to the Carmelite convent. Her family is disturbed by this. Newman meets the Bellegardes and asks them to set Claire free so they can marry. They say they prefer she be in a convent than Mrs. Newman. Newman is able to shake them by telling them that Valentin expressed shame for the family honor on his deathbed. Newman accuses the mother of having committed a crime and vows to learn the secret to use against them. Urbain is alarmed.
Commentary on Chapter XXI
Mrs. Bread frightens Newman by telling him the Carmelites are the most strict order and make a nun give up everything, even family. Newman thinks her family will want to save her from this fate, but they plan to encourage her rather than see her happy with Newman. She has effectually stopped their plan of marriage to Lord Deepmere by her action. Newman is surprised by the constant solidarity of the family despite the suffering of the individual members. He is bent on revenge if he cannot save Claire. He cultivates Mrs. Bread to learn the secret.
Newman is again acting like an American even as the Bellegardes are acting as aristocrats from a thousand-year-old family with honor to protect. Newman is a man of action and used to solving problems on his own. In the last interview with Claire, she almost gives in to his attractive strength. Yet for her the fear of family outweighs love. Newman cannot let her go without at least understanding what they hold over her head.
Summary of Chapter XXII
Mrs. Bread says to Newman that the family worked on Claire's feelings to get her to refuse him. Newman admits to Mrs. Bread that he wants to know the family secret so he can bring them down. Newman promises to give Mrs. Bread a job as his housekeeper so she will still have a place. He is shrewd enough to let Mrs. Bread take her time getting to the secret, and she goes on with a long family history. As it was time for the young Claire to be married, her father's health was bad. The mother had picked the Count de Cintré for her husband. The father objected and said his daughter should not marry at all if she had to have such a husband. They had a terrific fight.
The marquis was dying, and Mrs. Bread was his nurse. The marquis wanted to live to look after his daughter. There was one medicine that brought him back to life. The marquise was disappointed at his recovery and ordered to be left alone with him. When Mrs. Bread saw the marquis again he seemed dead. Mrs. Bread thought he had only fainted. Even the marquise saw his eyes were open. When she left, the marquis told Mrs. Bread he was dying and his wife did it. He wrote a note saying this and gave it to her. She saw that the medicine that was keeping him alive had been removed. The wife returned and insisted her husband was dead, but when the doctor came, he agreed the marquis was still alive. As soon as his wife came into the room, however, the marquis groaned and died suddenly.
Mrs. Bread has kept his last note secret all these years. Valentin and Claire never knew anything, but the doctor spread rumors, and they knew there had been foul play. Mrs. Bread thinks she tormented her husband and refused to give him his medicine.
Commentary on Chapter XXII
Newman knows how to get Mrs. Bread to talk. He encourages her instead of pressuring her. Mrs. Bread tells Newman the family made Claire feel wicked. She confirms Claire has been afraid for a very long time. The family history includes the great wrong that the old marquise did to Mrs. Bread when she accused her, a family servant, of having an affair with her husband. Mrs. Bread says this was a malicious lie.
Newman gives Mrs. Bread hints about what he wants her to tell, referring to a criminal act, and she skips ahead to the death. The foul play is indirect, as are all of the old woman's actions. She seems to have frightened her husband to death by withholding his medicine. Everyone is terribly afraid of her, except for Newman. He gets the note and promises to take care of Mrs. Bread for the rest of her life so she can leave the Bellegarde employ.
Is Newman being manipulated by Mrs. Bread? The note is in pencil and hard to read but Newman forces a meaning from the scratches. The note says that the man's wife has killed him and that it is over the marriage of Claire to M. de Cintré. He accuses his wife of murder and names Mrs. Bread and the doctors as witnesses. This story follows old gothic mystery plots, but James adds his own psychological touches with Newman's rage perhaps involved in the interpretation of the note. The only thing that is palpable is the fear in the family and what Claire calls the curse on the house. James is expert at describing terror and mystery, without coming to absolute conclusions. Mrs. Bread says she was too afraid to give the note to anyone.
Text: James, Henry, The American, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, #177, www.gutenberg.org, January 2, 2007.