The American By Henry James Summary and Analysis Chapter XVII

Summary

One evening. Newman was attending the opera with a group of his American friends when he perceived Urbain de Bellegarde and his wife in another box. He plans to speak to them when he happens to notice Mademoiselle Noémie in a box somewhat further on. As he is making his way toward the Bellegarde box, he finds Valentin bemoaning his fate. Valentin tells him that he has realized what a fool he is for running after Mademoiselle Noémie but still admits that she is amusing and exciting. Newman changes the subject and talks to Valentin about going to America and occupying a position in a bank. He decides to go back and hear some more music while he thinks over the proposition.

Newman speaks to the Bellegardes on his way back, and Urbain makes a few remarks about the opera and leaves Newman with young Madame de Bellegarde. She wants him to promise to take her to an artist's ball because her husband would never condescend to go to such a place. She tells him how bored she is with her life.

When Newman resumed his place, he noticed that Valentin had joined Mademoiselle Noémie and her companion. At the next intermission, Valentin told New man that he would be willing to try a position in America. As they are about to separate, Valentin is heading back to Mademoiselle Noémie's box. Newman tries to dissuade him, but Valentin explains that he has a special reason. Her companion has been insulting, and he must give the gentleman a chance to be openly insulting. It is, for Valentin, a point of honor.

At the end of the next act, he goes to Mademoiselle Noémie's box, and she is excited because Valentin and her companion are going to fight a duel over her. She is pleased because "that will give me a push." Newman is disgusted and leaves. He goes to Valentin who tells him that it is all arranged. Newman wants Valentin to drop it, but honor demands that Valentin continue with the arrangements. Newman requests permission to take charge, but as a future brother-in-law, Newman is not allowed to do so. Valentin leaves to find a second to accompany him to the dueling ground. Later he comes back to Newman and tries to explain how the thing is measured "by one's sense of honor." Newman objects because Mademoiselle Noémie is not worth testing one's sense of honor over. But Valentin cannot be changed in his opinion that his actions were the only possible ones.

The next day, Newman visits Madame de Cintré, and discovers that she has been crying. Valentin had been to see her and she has a foreboding that something dreadful is about to happen even though Valentin did not tell her about the duel. Newman does not feel that he has a right to tell her either.

Valentin dines with Newman the night before the duel. Again Newman tries to dissuade Valentin explaining that he is "too good to go and get'' his ''throat cut for a prostitute.'' But Valentin tries to explain the necessity of dueling and the necessity of his particular concept of honor. When they part, Newman asks only that Valentin return without damage.

Analysis

This chapter probably presents most directly the difference between the American and European's view of life, honor, forms, and ceremonies. Finally it is made clear that the European is more interested in how he will appear to the world than he is in any intrinsic values. The European sense of honor is built upon established forms and ceremonies while the American's sense of honor is built upon the proper perspective of any situation. Thus, Newman sees Mademoiselle as a prostitute undeserving of a duel by someone as important and valuable as Valentin. In other words, Valentin fights the duel only because he must preserve appearances and then he plans to go off to America. Thus appearances are more important to him than reality.

Furthermore, in Valentin's consideration of accepting a position in America, he is infinitely more concerned with how it would appear to others and how it would appear in his biography than he is in the usefulness and utilitarian value of actually doing something worthwhile. Throughout the entire chapter, while he is considering what to do with his life and while he is considering the proper forms to be observed in the forthcoming duel, he is never perplexed and never shows any signs of a failure to observe the correct forms and rituals. He even enjoys the music with perfect equanimity, and spends the evening before the duel discussing the proper ingredients for fish sauce.

Newman's reactions toward Mademoiselle Noémie have changed drastically during the course of the novel. At first, he wanted to help her, now he is disgusted by her desire to have two men duel over her simply because it will bring her publicity and "give her a push."

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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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