Study Guide

Claire de Cintré in The American

By Henry James

Claire de Cintré

A Tragic Figure

There's no doubt about it: Claire's had an unhappy life.

As a teenager, she was forced to marry the terrible Count de Cintré in order to keep her family afloat. And once the Count died, Claire didn't even get to keep his fortune. Clearly, she has plenty of reason to pout. But no one's entirely sure what Claire is thinking at any given moment…which makes her an extra tragic figure.

When Newman asks Mrs. Tristram what she suffers from, the answer is kind of vague:

"With her, somehow, one is very discreet." (6.12)

Maybe that's what makes Claire so sad all the time. She's grown up in an environment where being discreet is valued above all else, including her very legitimate emotions.

What's a gal to do when her family controls her every move? In Claire's world, the best response is to shut down and not let the outside world see what's going on behind the cool and collected demeanor.

Getting What She Wants

Then again, there are a few things Claire isn't willing to compromise on. For instance, her family can tell her to do whatever they want for ten years, but they can't tell her whom to marry. Mrs. Tristram confides to Newman that:

"She has been sold once; she naturally objects to being sold again." (6.20)

So even though the de Bellegarde family has a lot of control over Claire's life, she tries her best to limit the harm they can do.

Claire's stubbornness makes it even more significant that she bows to her family's will by the end of the book. Maybe what Claire wants is to be loyal to her family above all others, including the love of her life.

Speaking of the love of her life, Claire is very clear about wanting things on her own terms in that relationship. Newman isn't even allowed to utter the word "marriage" for six months, while Claire thinks about the consequences of marrying him.

Is marriage even what she wants, after all?

Elegant and Enigmatic

Even Claire's own brother describes her as a "statue which had failed as stone, resigned itself to its grave defects, and come to life as flesh and blood […]" (8.4).

But that's not just because she's pale. Claire's often regarded as a piece of artwork. Between her many accomplishments, her beauty, and her tendency to make everyone feel special, it's often hard to determine how much people value the idea of Claire over the actual woman.

Now that we think about it, Newman seems awfully fascinated by the idea of possessing art. But since this is about Claire, not Newman, we're wondering how much Claire's decision to renounce Newman has to do with society's tendency to view her as a collection of desirable qualities.

Think about it: when does Newman ever acknowledge that Claire has a single flaw? In some ways, we see the character of Claire through Newman's rose-colored glasses.

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