The American: Theme
Art and Culture
Europe is the land of culture, a collection of beautiful antiquities, with the accumulated wisdom and history of Western civilization. It is why Newman goes there to gain some polish and education. He is an uneducated man, having spent his whole life gathering wealth through work. He is aware of his lack of knowledge of the finer things in life. The United States was then a young country that still looked to Europe for its culture. Newman at first does not have much discrimination. He admires Noéssmie's copies of paintings in the Louvre more than the originals. He thinks of the world as a “great bazaar, where one might stroll about and purchase handsome things” (Chapter V, p. 48). He wants to bring home trophies. At the same time, he wants to pick up culture without being too serious, and in this he is contrasted to the scholarly Unitarian minister Babcock who engages in aesthetic analysis, taking in each painting and church with such painstaking detail that he gets indigestion. Newman goes by the guide book: “his tour was altogether a pastime” (Chapter V, p. 49). Newman is never embarrassed by his lack of cultural knowledge. For instance, he naively asks Urbain at the opera, how the plot of “Don Giovanni” comes out. The marquis sarcastically replies, “We all know what Mozart is; our impressions don't date from this evening” (Chapter XVII, p. 170).
Newman learns a little French, is introduced to society, goes on the Grand Tour, but though he absorbs a lot, he remains essentially the same plain and honest man. He wants merely to “stretch and haul in” what Europe has to offer (Chapter III, p. 25). Mrs. Tristram dubs him “the Great Western Barbarian” gazing at the “effete Old World” (Chapter III, p. 25). The refinement of Europe though great is often displayed as crumbling buildings and old fat lords and dukes, while Newman as the New World of America, is strong, healthy, energetic, and a doer. In the beginning, he believes the old and new worlds can be married, represented by his engagement to Claire. He does not realize until the end that the discrepancy is too great to be bridged, even by his good will.
Democracy vs. Aristocracy
James presents a running feud between democracy and aristocracy that continues discourse begun with the Enlightenment thinkers (Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, John Locke). Newman has a hard time stomaching what he considers upper-class French immorality, represented by the Bellegardes. Thomas Paine (1737-1809) in his pamphlet “Common Sense” (1776) helped to fire the American Revolution with the idea that monarchy itself was wicked and condemned by the Bible. Kings made wars and stole other men's wives. The Bellegardes appropriate whatever they want in the name of their family honor. No one else seems to count, not even their own children, who can only serve the family.
Newman, himself a working man, treats everyone, including servants like Mrs. Bread as equals. He is treated by the aristocrats in the Bellegarde salon, however, as a rare species. The marquise remarks that she has seen other Americans before Newman, as if he were a rhinoceros. She dubs him the Duke of California. He tries not to be offended because he sees the Bellegardes have no money, only shabby old pictures and furniture. He himself is proud of havlng amassed a fortune through hard work. He tells Valentin he is a free man, not bound to some social hierarchy. The marquis who believes in the absolute authority of the Bourbon monarchy can hardly bear Newman: “he was holding his breath so as not to inhale the odor of democracy” (Chapter XIII, p. 126-7). When Newman hears the marquis believes in the divine right of kings and is waiting for a restoration of the monarchy, he is horrified.
In a poignant interchange with his friend Valentin, Newman begs him not to challenge a man to a duel over the silly prostitute, Noémie. He tells Valentin he needs to occupy himself with meaningful activity. He will take him to America and get him a job in a bank. Valentin laughs. No gentleman would work. He prefers to uphold his aristocratic manners and dies for his honor in a duel. The irony is that the aristocracy itself is dying out, for the man who kills Valentin is the middle-class son of a German brewer.
Newman understands when he comes to Paris that he is out of his depth as far as social manners go. He has only known hard work in America and has come from a common background with no education. He does not know the famous artists he views in the Louvre and cannot carry on an intellectual conversation about art or politics. He learns enough French to get by. Nevertheless, Newman goes surprisingly far on his good looks, charm, and frankness. He never tries to pretend to be anything other than what he is. In America he is respected for his success, but in Paris, the Bellegardes try to make him ashamed of his social ignorance.
Newman is a thorough democrat unaware of the importance of class differences to the French. He chats with all the servants at the Bellegarde home. He treats M. Nioche as an equal, and he refuses to be intimidated by dukes and counts. They all look alike to him in their finery and pretensions. At first he believes the aristocrats like him. They acknowledge him and converse politely. What he does not understand is that he is being set up by the old marquise. She wants to show her daughter how gauche the American is. When Mrs. Tristram arrives, she understands the circus that is going on. She can read the minute nuances of the manners, while Newman cannot. The aristocrats say one thing and mean another. The subtext of the manners say, “you are not one of us.” Newman sticks out because he has no small talk or social banter. The marquis's wife tries to flirt with him, and he does not enjoy this kind of fashionable exchange. When told he is not good enough for the family, Newman is angry. Claire alone seems to appreciate his sincerity and honesty. The Bellegardes break their word to Newman because he is not of their class and therefore, negligible. They show him he does not exist in their world through their manners.