Study Guide

The American The Hearth

By Henry James

The Hearth

Of course, it wouldn't be a Henry James novel without a cozy fire burning in a hearth at home…and intricate, genius psychological realism, of course.

Dang, Henry James is just so. good.

Ahem. Back to the hearth.

But James doesn't shy away from making this symbol of cocoa and coziness into an ominous sign of the end (of the novel, that is). The hearth is where Newman most often meets Mrs. Tristram to gab about Claire and his strategies to marry her. It's only fitting that when Newman's dreams come crashing down, he literally burns them up in the fireplace.

Burn, Baby, Burn

In the last chapter, Newman props himself up "against the fireplace" and prepares himself to tell Mrs. Tristram about the incriminating letter (26.27). After renouncing all of the Bellegardes for good, he tells her he is going to "burn them up" (26.25).

What a drama queen.

But instead, Newman tosses the secret letter in the fireplace and makes sure it's good and gone. Instead of burning up the Bellegardes, he burns up the letter. Hey, something had to be engulfed in flames.

And—et, voila!—it's a clean slate for Newman, who's made new again by the cleansing fire. Nah, we're just kidding. After he throws the paper in the fire, Newman anxiously checks to see if he can get it back. Maybe he's not as forgiving as he'd like to think he is.

That's the thing about the hearth. On one hand, it's a safe space for Newman—one where he can confide all his secrets to Mrs. Tristram. On the other hand, Newman's burning desire for revenge is just a little too symbolic to be ignored.

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