The American: Chapter 5,6

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Summary of Chapter V

Newman does not let on how smitten he is with Madame de Cintré. Mrs. Tristram tells him to travel during the summer and try courtship in the fall. Newman travels and does well despite his lack of languages. He picks up things without effort, for he believes life should be easy and enjoyable. He sees Belgium, Holland, the Rhineland, Switzerland, and Northern Italy. In Holland he meets a young American with whom he travels—Babcock, a Unitarian minister from Dorchester, Massachusetts, whom he nicknames Dorchester. The minister has weak digestion but is discriminating in his opinions on art. He distrusts European morals, however. He likes Newman and tries to discuss religion with him, but Newman's “mind could no more hold principles than a sieve can hold water” (p. 53). The two split up in Venice after Babcock accuses him of being too hasty and having a “reckless confidence” (p. 53). Later, Newman travels with an Englishman who thinks he is too virtuous.


Commentary on Chapter V

The travel chapter allows a look at European influence on Newman and shows how he is viewed by others. Newman is contrasted to another American, Babcock, an intellectual aesthete who is upset by Newman's undiscriminating good nature. Babcock, however, is a hypochondriac who takes himself too seriously. The Englishman finds Newman too virtuous and naive, on the other hand, a bit of foreshadowing of his problems with the French.

In a discussion about women, Babcock and Newman exhibit their more inhibited American view of sex, although Newman is generally easygoing about social customs. His misunderstanding of the social code of other nations will be an obstacle with the Bellegarde family when he tries to woo Claire. Babcock and Newman split up because they are too different. Newman does not understand other natures very well, though he is good with other people and tries to give them the benefit of the doubt. His “reckless confidence” will prove to be a blind spot. He believes he can do as he wishes, if he acts in good faith, not understanding that other people take certain social boundaries seriously.


Summary of Chapter VI

Newman returns to Paris for the fall where Tom Tristram has found him some rooms equal to his “social position” (p. 57). Newman is not fond of decorating and lets Tristram do it for him. The apartment is very ornate. Mrs. Tristram reports she saw Madame de Cintré leaving confession at church with red eyes from weeping. She explains Claire suffers from her mother and older brother who persecute her. They were responsible for her first marriage. Mrs. Tristram calls her friend Claire a saint.  The family wants her to make a marriage for money. They want to sell her again because she did not get enough from the first husband. Newman tries to see her again, and this time she is at home. He meets her and her younger brother, Valentin, destined to become a close friend of Newman's. Newman senses difficulty in the very atmosphere of the house, though the two youngest children, Claire and Valentin, are handsome and friendly. When Claire's and Newman's eyes meet, he is sold out to her. Claire's pretty sister-in-law, wife of the older brother, is also introduced to him. She likes Newman and always flirts with him.


Commentary on Chapter VI

Newman claims innocence about what his housing should look like and again contrasts to the Parisians who measure these things minutely. The Tristrams continue to be his friends and mentors. Newman is already puzzled by the dynamics of the French family, wondering why Madame de Cintré lets herself be bullied. Legally she is free from her family, but not morally and emotionally. In France, he learns, the mother is powerful as well as one's duty is to the family. It is not the individual freedom that is important, as in America. Newman is shocked that Europeans force their women into hateful marriages. Mrs. Tristram comments that it is not only Europeans who do this. Here she is undoubtedly thinking of herself and her own unhappy marriage, forced on her by circumstance rather than family.

Newman has been admitted to the Bellegarde house the second time perhaps because they have found out about Newman's wealth. Newman feels the Bellegarde home is “a medium deep as the ocean” (p. 61), meaning he knows he is in over his head. Claire mentions how many generations were born in this Paris house where she has lived all her life. The date “1627” is engraved on a coat of arms on the wall. It is clear that Newman and Claire are attracted to one another when she prevents her brother from taking Newman away from her for a house tour. He is able to make Claire laugh. He is not embarrassed about his business and admits he has sold leather and wash tubs to make his money. Valentin warns him that the courtship will not be easy.

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

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