Summary and Analysis
Newman is still nursing a desire for revenge, but he does not want to be trapped in an act of revenge. He cannot escape the fact that he is the "good fellow wronged." But more and more he begins to see that the Bellegardes are suffering because they are in suspense as to what he will do with his secret paper. Perhaps the more he waited, the more the Bellegardes would suffer.
Newman travels to America, then across the continent to San Francisco. He told his friends nothing except that the lady had changed her mind. When further details were requested, Newman always suggested that the subject be dropped.
One day he received a letter from Mrs. Tristram. She told him that Madame de Cintré had taken her last vows as a Carmelite nun. That evening he started for Paris. When he returned to his Paris apartment, he told Mrs. Bread that he intended to remain forever.
He goes immediately to see Mrs. Tristram who tells him that Claire de Cintré is now transferred to another Carmelite nunnery on the Rue d'Enfer. She tells him that he did not travel long enough because he still looks dangerous if not wicked. Newman rejects the idea that he is wicked.
That night, he walked by the nunnery, where Claire de Cintré was "imprisoned." The nunnery only told him that "the woman within was lost beyond recall." As he remembered the depth of his love and the extremes of Claire de Cintré's punishment to prove her love, suddenly "the bottom had fallen out of his revenge." Then he was "ashamed of having wanted to hurt" the Bellegardes. "They had hurt him, but such things were really not his game."
He went to his apartment and asked Mrs. Bread to pack his bags. He tells her that he has decided never to return to Paris. He pays one more visit to the Tristrams. Soon Tom Tristram excuses himself to go to his club. Then Newman takes out the letter that the old Marquis de Bellegarde had written and throws it into the fire. He tells Mrs. Tristram that the piece of paper was his revenge because it contained a secret which would damn the Bellegardes if it were known. He explains that it is a very bad secret. Mrs. Tristram wonders if the Bellegardes were humbled. Newman explains that they pretended not to be but he knows that they were frightened and that is all the revenge he needs. Mrs. Tristram tells him that the Bellegardes probably counted on his being such a gentleman and their talent was not in bluffing but in their knowledge of Newman's "remarkable good nature." Newman turned to see if the letter was completely burned, but it was.
With the passing of time, Newman has still done nothing about his revenge. He still feels, when he thinks of it, that he "was a good fellow wronged." And with this realization, he also came to another realization — that part of his revenge was leaving the Bellegardes in suspense as to when he would reveal the contents of the document.
Returning to America, Newman was unable to renew old acquaintances. He has learned so much in Europe and his experiences there have been so intense and so deep, that he feels unable to communicate these feelings to his old friends; thus, he says nothing to them. This need to communicate his feelings ultimately leads him back to Mrs. Tristram, the only person to whom he can speak openly about his wrong.
After talking to Mrs. Tristram and seeing the place where Claire de Cintré is imprisoned, he decides to leave Paris forever. When he goes to bid goodbye to Mrs. Tristram, he learns that the Bellegardes have stayed in their country home ever since their betrayal of Newman. He realizes that they are now feeling him.
Newman's greatness and superiority is seen in these scenes. He now comes to realize that mere revenge is meaningless to him. If he could use his information to force the Bellegardes to give Claire de Cintré back to him, he would do so, but he knows now that he can never have her. Therefore, to make the Bellegardes suffer will not alleviate his own sufferings. In giving up his idea of revenge, he is renouncing a part of the world in the same way that Claire de Cintré renounced the entire world. But in both renunciations, the characters take on qualities which make them more important and more significant individuals.
The reader should remember that James has already foreshadowed this last act of Newman's. Earlier, when he had a chance to revenge himself on the man who had played a "dirty trick" on him, Newman had found the entire procedure distasteful. But the "dirty trick" played on him by the Bellegardes hurts much more. The point is that Newman is a consistent character with certain definite values. He only had to have time to realize that regardless of the degree of hurt or regardless of the magnitude of the "dirty trick" his own basic reaction will ultimately be the same.
James often ends his novels on a slightly ironic or ambiguous note. Thus at the end of The American, when Mrs. Tristram tells Newman that the Bellegardes were counting on his being gentleman enough to burn the letter, Newman looks to see if it is completely consumed. He resents perhaps that once again the Bellegardes got the upper hand. But still Newman would not have used the letter. He must remain constant to his values.