Study Guide

The American Setting

By Henry James



Setting in The American is all about Newman's fantasy world: Paris, the City of Lights, Love and the Louvre.

Of course, if we learned anything from Woody Allen's movie on the same theme (what's up, Midnight in Paris), it's that nostalgia defines a place. Newman's nostalgic for a version of Paris that doesn't really exist.

Ooh-La-La, Oui

Before Newman really gets to know Paris, he gravitates directly to the center of the city (in his mind, anyway). Not only is he hanging out at the Louvre, he's "reclining at his ease on the great circular divan which at that period occupied the centre of the Salon Carre in the Museum" (1.1).

In other words, he's chilling out at a famous museum, trying to look cool. Before he's even settled in the city, Newman's surrounded himself with art and beautiful things. He's self-selecting his own scenery, in a manner of speaking.

That says a lot about how our protagonist—the titular American—views Europe.

Interior Design

None of the characters in The American spend their days tromping through scenic forests and fields. Nope, our beloved Americans (and Europeans) hang out in impressively decorated chateaus, hotels, museums, and mansions.

Newman rests his hat in "a series of rooms, gilded from floor to ceiling a foot thick, draped in various light shades of satin, and chiefly furnished with mirrors and clocks" (6.7).

You fancy, Newman.

Meanwhile, the Bellegarde clan lives out their days in an opulent chateau. Unlike Newman, however, the Bellegardes don't try to surround themselves with beauty. They've simply inherited beautiful things over the years. Newman, it seems, tries a little too hard.

Lolling Around in London

When Newman gets burned by Claire, he sulks his way over to London. Although he calls it the "great spectacle of English life," it's totally a retreat from real life (26.1). Newman is way more comfortable in England, despite the fact that he's spent more time in France.

That's because he finally realizes that his initial impulse to seek out "aesthetic entertainment in Europe" is a bit naïve (26.1). While Newman spends all his time in France chilling in magnificent mansions, he walks outside quite a bit when he's in London. We'd say that he's a little less obsessed with surrounding himself with art every waking minute of the day.

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