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The American

Henry James

Summary and Analysis Chapter III


On the next day, Tristram took Newman home to meet Mrs. Tristram. Newman was fond of the company of women and welcomed the opportunity. Mrs. Tristram had a "marked tendency to irony." She had a very plain face, and had decided years ago to attempt to develop a great deal of charm to compensate for her lack of beauty. She had once been in love with a clever man who slighted her, and she "married a fool" out of some type of revenge, but she possessed "a spark of the sacred fire."

After a few talks with Mrs. Tristram, Newman and she became "fast friends." In their closer associations, he rapidly noticed that the Tristrams were not compatible. He also realized that the fault lay with Tom Tristram who seemed to live an idle and useless life.

As their acquaintance deepened, Mrs. Tristram often felt the need "to do something with" Newman. She pried information from him with the hope of discovering some way she could help him, but he seemed terribly self-contained. Finally, she told him one day that she would "like to put him in a difficult place." After Mrs. Tristram tells Newman that he flatters her patriotism, she refuses to explain what she means, but advises him to always act naturally. If he is ever in a difficult situation, he is to do what comes naturally for him. Newman protests that there are so "many forms and ceremonies over here," but this is what Mrs. Tristram means — for Newman to cut through the rituals and come to the basic truth.

For the first time during their friendship, Mrs. Tristram brings up the subject of marriage. Newman tells her that he is anxious to marry, but wants to marry well, and he will be hard to please. His wife "must be a magnificent woman." Mrs. Tristram tells him that a perfect wife for him is already found and that she will bring them together. Mrs. Tristram asks him if he has a prejudice against European women, and Newman explains that he would marry anyone if the person pleased him.

In describing the person, who is named Claire de Cintré, Mrs. Tristram explains that Claire is not a great beauty, but "simply the loveliest woman in the world." She is not a "beauty, but she is beautiful" and she is half English and half French. Mrs. Tristram will not give an exact description, but maintains that "she is perfect." She warns Newman that Madame de Cintré has already been married once and doesn't want to be married again. It is Newman's job to make her change her mind.

At this point, Tristram breaks in and says that Madame de Cintré is a woman who is quite proud and haughty and not very good-looking. Her looks are the kind that one must "be intellectual to understand." Some days later, Newman is calling on the Tristrams, and he accidently discovers Madame de Cintré as she is about to leave. With Mrs. Tristram's help, he is able to extract an invitation from this grand lady. After she leaves, Newman admits that she has a handsome face, but thinks she is more shy than proud. A few days later, he goes to the home, but is told by someone that "Madame de Cintré is not at home." As Newman leaves, he discovers that the man, who had seemed haughty to him, was actually Madame de Cintré's oldest brother.


This chapter is devoted to introducing Mrs. Tristram who will play such an important role in the novel. She will become Newman's confidante, and she will be the person who will introduce Newman to Claire de Cintré.

Essentially, Mrs. Tristram's function is to bring out certain characteristics of Newman and to illuminate the main character in some ways. She talks to him and by her probing questions we learn more about Newman as a character. She is also a complete contrast to her husband. It does not take Newman or the reader long to decide that Mrs. Tristram is far superior to her husband. For all of her faults, James still writes about her that she had "a spark of the sacred fire." This means that she belongs to the better type of people in the world.

In this chapter, James continues to use foreshadowing and irony. She says to Newman that she would like to put him in a difficult situation. Actually, by introducing Newman to Claire de Cintré, she involves him in a very difficult situation. Furthermore, she says that in six months she will see Newman in a fine fury, and Newman s pains and tumult that he endures at the hands of the Bellegardes are enough to put him in a fury.

James is also concerned with American innocence as opposed to European experience. This is first seen developing in this chapter. Mrs. Tristram advises Newman to always act naturally in all situations. This is Newman's (and the American's) great attribute — the ability to act naturally, but in Europe Newman is confronted with "so many forms and ceremonies." Thus the difference between the American's naturalness and the European's experience will be seen on one level to be the difference between naturalness and formality, or between spontaneity as opposed to form and ceremony.

We also first hear of the fabulous Claire de Cintré in this chapter. There are two opposing views of her from the very beginning. First of all, Newman, in describing the woman he wants for a wife, says that she "must be a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument." This is ironic because this description fits a woman who is not natural, who is more a work of art than a natural woman. Even Mrs. Tristram refers to her as "of a different clay." Tom Tristram says she is a "great white doll of a woman." Thus, James is already beginning to suggest that Claire de Cintré represents qualities that suggest art, form, and perfection rather than simplicity and naturalness.

We are also warned that Claire de Cintré's family are "terrible people" who are "mounted upon stilts a mile high, and with pedigrees long in proportion." We hear also that she has been married once and doesn't want to be married again. Thus, James is creating a situation where Newman will have to function in a manner and in a way that he has never before encountered. Thus, part of the suspense of the novel comes from our desire to see how this exceptional American will handle this completely new situation.

When Tom Tristram and Mrs. Tristram disagree about the value of Claire de Cintré, we, the readers, are already prepared to accept Mrs. Tristram's judgment of the situation, but we should not dismiss all that Tom Tristram says. When he comments that one must be intellectual to understand Claire de Cintré's beauty, he has accidently hit upon an important truth. Of course, Tom Tristram is not intellectual and therefore cannot understand Claire's beauty. Therefore, when Newman does respond, it suggests further qualities about the hero.

Mrs. Tristram tells Newman that he is "horribly western" and at the same time tells him that he "flatters" her patriotism. This implies a great deal about Newman. He is horribly western, because he is the natural man who is not affected by the manners, forms, and ceremonies of European society, but at the same time, Mrs. Tristram sees in Newman all of the good qualities that are represented by the American man and thus Newman flatters her streak of latent patriotism. That is, Newman combines all of the best qualities for which various Americans are known.

At the very end of the chapter, the reader is not aware of the fact, but Newman has met the Count Valentin and the Count Urbain de Bellegarde. The Count Valentin reacted in a friendly way and told Newman that he would see if his sister is "visible," but the Count Urbain said rather coldly that Madame de Cintré was not at home. Thus, our first exposure to these two brothers suggests the difference between their respective personalities.