The American by Henry James

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Image These are bothe book covers which depict The American.  Interestingly enough in the film version Matthew Modine is The American.

Discussion Question from Lit Lovers

1. Notice Christopher Newman’s name. He tells Noemie Nioche that he was named for the explorer. In what way does his name signify his character and the novel’s thematic concerns?

2. How would you describe Newman? What are his qualities as a character? Is he naive…aware…self-aware? What is he looking for? Why, for instance, do we find him at the Louvre at the novel’s opening? How does he compare to his friend, Tom Tristam?

3. What about Noemie and the Countess Claire de Bellegard. Compare and contrast the two women. How do they differ in character? What about Lizzie Tristam? Newman takes an immediate liking to her. Is his regard for her justified?

4. Why does Valentin de Bellegarde encourage the romantic attachment between his sister Claire and Christopher? What does the play on his name suggest? How, in a sense, do the two friends (Valentin and Christopher) represent the societal values of their respective continents?

5. Why does the Marquise de Bellegarde and her son Urbain disapprove of a match between Claire and Christopher? What is their objection to Newman’s money?

6. Discuss how the motif of genuine vs. artificial plays out in this novel. Consider, for example, that Noemie Nioche is a copyist of original paintings. How might this symbolize her as a character? What about other characters—who else lives under the guise of truthfulness but is dishonest?

7. Many of James’s works are concerned with the differences between Europe and America? How is that cultural contrast presented in The American? Keep in mind the novel’s title: is the title meant to honor or disparage Americans?

8. What role does wealth play in this story—its accumulation and loss, it’s ability to confer status…or lack thereof?

9. Which characters do you find most sympathetic? Which ones least?

10. At one point, Newman thinks that the Marquise and Urbain are “sick as a pair of poisoned cats.” Why does he decide not to pursue retaliation toward them? Was he right to stop his efforts? Or should he have continued to expose them?

11. James once admitted that he could have written the novel in such a way that Claire and Christopher married. But he refused a happy ending. What difference would it have made to your reading of the novel had the two lovers been united at the end?

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