The American By Henry James Summary and Analysis Chapter VIII

Summary

When Newman took Valentin to his apartment, he asked him directly to tell him something about Madame de Cintré Valentin tells him that he cannot be objective because he admires his sister too much. He explains that she is the perfect combination of all the finest qualities of the world. She is kind, charitable, gentle, generous, and intelligent. She is both grave and gay.

Valentin then explains about Madame de Cintré's first husband. He was an odious old man of sixty years who had been guilty of misusing property that belonged to relatives. When he died, there were many court battles to gain possession of the property. Madame de Cintré found it so obnoxious that she promised her mother to do anything her mother asked her for ten years (except marry again) if she could drop the suit.

Newman asks about the marriage and is told how it was an arranged marriage. Madame de Cintré saw her husband only a short time before the wedding and turned ghostly white. She fainted at the wedding.

Newman reminds Valentin of his offer to render any service to him. Valentin tells him he is quite anxious to do so, therefore, Newman tells Valentin to make his sister think well of him. He then reveals that he wants to marry Madame de Cintré. Valentin is so surprised that he can say nothing. Finally Newman asks him to say so immediately if he must refuse. Again, Valentin wants to hear the request because he can hardly believe it. Newman explains that he wants only for Valentin to say a good word about him and he will do everything else; he promises to do everything in the proper form. Valentin finally says he doesn't know whether is he "pleased or horrified." Newman wonders why he should be horrified, and Valentin explains that Newman is not noble. Newman rejects that idea, maintaining that he is indeed noble. "I say I am noble. I don't exactly know what you mean by it, but it's a fine word and a fine idea: I put in a claim to it." Valentin asks for proof, for some title, but Newman says it is up to them to prove that he is not noble. For Valentin this is easy: Newman is not noble because he has "manufactured washtubs." Finally, Valentin tells him that what he means is that Newman is "not good enough."

Newman tells Valentin all that he expects of a wife, and all that he is willing to do for the right type of woman. For him, Madame de Cintré is his dream realized. All he wants from Valentin is a good word from him — for Valentin to tell his sister that Newman is a "good fellow" and "would make her a very good husband." Finally, Valentin is convinced that Newman is serious, and he decides to help Newman all he possibly can, but he warns him that it will not be easy — there are many forms and ceremonies to be observed. Furthermore, he warns Newman that the Bellegardes are an old and strange family: "Old trees have crooked branches, old houses have queer cracks, old races have odd secrets."

Analysis

This chapter elaborates on the character and nature of Madame de Cintré by having her brother praise her so highly, and as Mrs. Tristram had hinted early, Madame de Cintré is bound by some strange way to her family. Here we find out it is because of a promise that she made to the family. In her desire to drop out of the law litigations, when she found out about how corrupt her husband had been, we see in her actions and desires the same type of nobility recounted in Newman's earlier episode concerning the person who had played a dirty trick on him. Both Newman and Madame de Cintré would rather lose the money than be involved in situations tinged with vulgarity and immorality. Thus, she has made a promise to obey her family for ten years except that she will refuse to marry again. This information gives us the reason that Claire de Cintré cannot later defy her family when they refuse to accept Newman.

One of the essential differences between the American and the European is brought out in Newman and Valentin's discussion of the term "nobility." Newman, as the noble American, feels that he is as noble as any European, but for him this is an innate quality that men develop and live by. For him, others would have to prove that he is not noble, but for Valentin, nobility is something that is inherited. A man can be a perfect scoundrel as was Count de Cintré, but if he possesses a title, then he is automatically noble. It is earlier emphasized that the Bellegardes are among the most noble — the family nobility dates back to the eleventh century, and during this time there is ''not a case on record of a misalliance among the women" of the family. A marriage between Newman and Madame de Cintré would therefore be considered a misalliance.

Throughout the entire chapter, Valentin is made appealing to the reader in spite of his brief spell of superiority and emphasis on nobility. This is a result of James' emphasis on Valentin's sincerity. He is one European who does not stand on ceremony and who does not employ forms and rituals in everything he does. Like Newman he acts with honesty and spontaneity. Even in his surprise and "horrified" reactions to the proposal, he remains a sympathetic character.

When Valentin accepts Newman as a suitor, his motivations are the best. He accepts Newman because he thinks Newman is indeed a fine person, and he is impressed that Newman thinks so highly of Madame de Cintré. This acceptance is based therefore on human values, whereas when the Bellegardes accept Newman as a suitor it is based solely upon the fact that he is immensely rich, a purely materialistic acceptance.

Several times during the chapter, Newman suggests that Valentin does not like his older brother, but Valentin says only positive things about the Count Urbain de Bellegarde. However, we know that he does in actuality despise his brother simply by the way that he alludes to him. Thus the forces are beginning to align themselves: Newman, Valentin, and Madame de Cintré as opposed to Madame de Bellegarde and the Count Urbain de Bellegarde.

At the end of the chapter, Valentin reminds Newman that "old trees and old races have strange secrets and crooked branches." This is again a bit of symbolic foreshadowing, for it is later discovered that the noble family has committed some rather terrible crimes.

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At the ball, who tries to point out some things to Newman, when he fails to realize them on his own?




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