Study Guide

The American Ambition

By Henry James

Ambition

Ask him, then, if he would not like to learn French. (1.41)

Noemie instantly spots a business opportunity and capitalizes on it. She's one smart cookie…and one ambitious cookie. Mmm, ambitious cookies.

It must be admitted, rather nakedly, that Christopher Newman's sole aim in life had been to make money […] (2.51)

He's not ashamed of it, either. Newman likes to live large…and he also likes to succeed. His monetary wealth has opened doors for him, like, say, allowing him to live in France.

Life had been for him an open game, and he had played for high stakes. (2.51)

Henry James loves to bring in gambling analogies. In gambling terms, Newman is all in and sitting at the high-rollers' table.

One's standard was the ideal of one's own good-humoured prosperity, the prosperity which enabled one to give as well as take. (5.2)

Newman doesn't feel shy about taking from the world, as long as he gives back. That's how he acquires wealth…and that same philosophy drives a lot of his interpersonal actions as well. He feels like it's a-okay to be socially greedy, as long as he gives social charity.

"Why, you are not noble, for instance." (8.43)

For all of his ambition, Newman can't generate a title out of thin air. That's where he flounders in France—he thinks that he can buy his way into high society. Unfortunately for him, Europeans are less interested in self-made men than Americans are.

"I believe you mean," said Newman slowly, "that I am not good enough." (8.49)

Newman is still coming to terms with the fact that status can't be bought in his new community. He's so bewildered by this that he even has to speak slowly. The idea is inconceivable for him, because he was raised in "by your bootstraps" America.

"You should not hesitate, then, to go up to-morrow and ask a duchess to marry you?" (8.76)

Valentin is testing Newman's limits. How far will his ambition go? (The answer: to the moon and back.)

"And—in that way—is Madam de Cintre ambitious?" (8.69).

Notice how Newman tosses that question off oh-so-casually. He's definitely curious to find out if Claire is ambitious, because ambition is a virtue to our favorite All-American boy.

"I think she might be touched by the prospect of becoming the wife of a great man." (8.70)

Women's ambitions in The American are always limited to good marriages. They're handcuffed by being women in the 19th Century. Not only couldn't they rise in a career, but their only worth was measured by how well they married.

All this, as I have affirmed, made her seem rare and precious—a very expensive article, as he would have said, and one which a man with an ambition to have everything about him of the best would find it highly agreeable to possess. (11.2)

There goes Newman, at it again with the comparisons of women and jewelry. But hey—as far as he's concerned, women are mainly just very pretty possessions in human suits. Newman's not alone in this assertion, either: that was how people thought about 51% of the population in the 19th Century. Time machine? No thanks.

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