Summary of Chapter I
The story opens in the Louvre Museum in Paris, May, 1868. An American tourist, Christopher Newman, is using a guide book to study a Murillo Madonna while sitting on an ottoman. He is hot and tired, though a strong muscular and vigorous man. He is dazzled by too much art and begins to watch the numerous students sitting in front of paintings, copying them. The narrator examines Newman from head to foot as a specimen of the American character: Newman is tall, strong, honest, and a blend of innocence and experience. Though a practical man of business, he is attempting to get a cultural education in the Louvre. He watches a pretty young woman copying the Murillo Madonna and offers to pay for the copy. The woman tells him it will cost 2,000 francs. They speak with difficulty because Newman does not speak French. Her card reads, “Mlle. NoémieNioche.”
Her father, M. Nioche, comes to escort his daughter home. He speaks English and explains his daughter is educated and an artist. Noémie prompts her father to offer Newman French lessons for a fee. Newman agrees, feeling sorry for M. Nioche, who claims he was a successful businessman, now in hard times trying to support his daughter. He agrees to bring the painting to Newman when it is finished, and to teach him conversational French.
Commentary on Chapter I
James plunges into two themes immediately: the characteristics of Americans and the glory of European art. Newman reveals himself as American in many ways. He is rich at a young age through his own efforts and did not inherit money. He uses his money to travel, however, as an “undeveloped connoisseur” (3) desperately trying to get some culture to match his millions. He is a bit intimidated by Rubens and Raphael and uses a guide book to understand what he sees.
He is described as tall, strong, muscular, and healthy. Much is made of his heroic good looks. This is part of the American archetype of physical health from work and a vast expanse of nature to move around in. Newman also appears American in his bluntness and honesty. He never tries to fake elegance or manners. He shows himself in his treatment of the Nioches to be a natural gentleman, full of kindness. He is a true democrat, treating everyone from servants to counts in a courteous way. This tendency sets the stage for his conflict with the upper-class Europeans, the main drama of the novel.
James also gives Newman a moral advantage in his temperance. He is used to hard work and discipline, not partying and the high life. He drinks moderately and does not smoke or dance, while men of society drink, smoke, and dance as part of a lifestyle.
The Nioches are a contrast to the honest American. It is obvious as the story unfolds that they are a team, scamming to get their livelihood. Noémie plays the proper daughter, but she is, in fact, the brains of the team, offering herself as bait. The father is a dramatic prop. Newman's innocence colors his interpretation. He cannot tell a copy from original art, and the Nioches seem like a respectable family to him. He is the ignorant cowboy hero. This setup provides both humor and thought.
Summary of Chapter II
Newman continues to look at the art in the Louvre and meets another American, Tom Tristram, whom he knew years before. He asks Tristram to show him the ropes in Paris, because he has lived there for six years and has a wife, children, and home. Newman envies his friend and his family, for he is thirty-six and unmarried. The two friends go to the Palais Royale and have a drink, looking at the entertainment and people in the street. Newman says he is traveling to find culture and a wife. His only motive in life so far has been to make money, and now he wants something more. He admits he feels like a child in Paris, not knowing how to proceed. Tristram wants him to join the Occidental Club where the Americans gather to play poker. Newman declines. He wants real culture, he says. Tristram invites him to come to dinner at his home.
Commentary on Chapter II
The character of Tristram is a foil to Newman. He offers a chance to contrast another American to Newman. Tristram is a more common and vulgar type. He does not like art and lures Newman out of the Louvre into the street. He is a friendly man but corpulent and dull. He tries to get Newman to play poker with other Americans in Paris. He is not the cultural guide Newman is looking for.
Newman tells Tristram his success in business is because he is not afraid to take a risk. He likes challenge. This characteristic will be highlighted in his struggle with the aristocratic Bellegardes to win a wife. Newman is not used to quitting or losing. Yet he tells an interesting story about his business that foreshadows the ending of the novel. A man cheated him of $60,000. He planned his revenge, but in the end could not make himself to carry it off. It was suddenly insignificant, and he dropped his life and went to Europe. In this we see Newman as being a sensitive man who, though able to make money, has more to him. He is a man of honor and wants something deeper in value than money or winning. He is not a materialist. He is looking for love and the intangible finer things in life.
Text: James, Henry, The American, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, #177, www.gutenberg.org, January 2, 2007.