The American: Chapter 7,8

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Summary of Chapter VII

A week later Valentin visits Newman at his apartment. Newman likes him though he is an ironic young man always laughing at something. Valentin says his sister asked him to come. He is checking out Newman as a prospective suitor. He admires Newman's success and money while he calls himself a failure. He can do nothing except be an impoverished aristocrat. He envies Newman's freedom to do as he chooses. There are many things he cannot do because he is a Bellegarde.

Though Valentin seems to be checking Newman out, his real task seems to be to let him know the Bellegarde ethic. He mentions that in terms of marriage “it must be name for name, and fortune for fortune” (p. 72). Valentin does not have enough money to marry and so he became a soldier and fought in a war for the Pope. He admits he can amuse himself as a play boy for another five years or so, but then the only option is a monastery. Newman continues to visit Madame de Cintré; he is falling in love with her. Meanwhile, he listens to the petty amours of the bored Valentin.


Commentary on Chapter VII

This in-depth investigation of the difference of lifestyle between Valentin and Newman is important. It reveals the Bellegarde values which are opposite to Newman's American ethics. Valentin is the smooth French courtier while Newman is the rough American with frank manners. They study one another. Newman likes the way Valentin lives passionately: “He was squarely encamped in the centre and he was keeping open house . . . he gave you the last drop of his jollity” (p. 69).

In a moment of foreshadowing, Newman says he never quarrels with anyone, and Valentin says sometimes it is a duty. This is ironic for Newman will quarrel with the Bellegarde family over Claire, and Valentin will die in a duel. Valentin is very aware of playing the role of the French gentleman. Though he has been trained in the ancient code of family behavior, he is spontaneous and joyous, unlike his older brother, Urbain. He is known as the family heretic for disagreeing with his elders and yet he stays loyal to them. This tells something about Claire's feelings as well, for the family has a deep pull on its members.

Valentin's loyalty to a code and family are incomprehensible to Newman. Valentin says that Newman feels at home in the world because he has made his own place there, while he has inherited his role. Newman feels proud of his honest labor, but the French look down on a man who works and has no pedigree. Valentin and Newman idealize each other as the type of their national heritage.


Summary of Chapter VIII

One night as they converse, Newman asks Valentin about his sister Claire, for they are very close. Valentin praises his sister as both good and beautiful. She was forced to marry Comte de Cintré who was sixty years old, when she was eighteen. He was disagreeable and when he died the Bellegardes and his own family fought over his money in court. So much disgrace came out about him in court that Claire renounced his money. Her mother made her promise that if she did that she had to obey the family for the next ten years, unless they tried to make her marry. The family history goes back to Charlemagne on the father's side. The Bellegardes have always married into old families. Newman asks Valentin to make Claire think well of him because he wants to marry her. Valentin is surprised and horrified, for Newman is not of noble birth.


Commentary on Chapter VIII

The portrait of Claire shows her to be a refined woman who was badly hurt by being sold into marriage as a teenager. She has used this misfortune to gain a degree of integrity within the family, using it to negotiate her position. Yet it seems clear she is a sort of prisoner, as is Valentin. This chapter defines the walls Newman will have to climb to get to his bride.

Newman defends himself against the charge that he is not noble by claiming he has moral nobility worth more than a social title. Still, Valentin is genuinely shocked that a salesman would try to marry a countess, though he likes Newman, and even admires him. Newman gets the point they do not consider him good enough, but he insists he be given a chance to be agreeable to Claire herself without interference. He believes that the fact he will be a good husband to her should count for a lot after what she has been through. Claire is his ideal, and he means to try for her. Valentin thinks the whole thing is an interesting challenge and agrees to help as far as he can. He enjoys watching human drama. Newman is sincere, deciding to try to make himself good enough for Claire any way he can.

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

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