Study Guide

The American Betrayal

By Henry James


"But it was very considerate of you to wait, wronged as you have been." (19.8)

Claire knows how to follow proper etiquette, even after she's betrayed Newman in a major way. Leave it to those 19th Century gentlefolk to sugarcoat cruelty in a delicious fondant.

"I don't think I have wronged, seriously, many persons; certainly not consciously." (19.10)

At least we know Claire's keeping score of the people she's betrayed? But this sentence also underscores the fact that Claire is aware of the degrees of betrayal—she knows that betrayal with intention is way worse than, say, betraying your best friend by eating the last eggroll because you just happened to absentmindedly stuff it in your mouth.*

*Based on a true story from a Shmoop family dinner.

"I should not have wronged you." (19.14)

This is important. We're getting acknowledgment that Newman's totally in the right, whereas the Bellegarde family messed up big-time.

"I want to bring them down—down, down, down! I want to turn the tables upon them—I want to mortify them as they have mortified me." (22.27)

Tell us how you really feel, Newman. Newman's a big believer in the eye-for-an-eye philosophy. Luckily, he comes to the conclusion that this kind of philosophy leaves the whole world blind…or rather, leaves him with a broken heart, his lady in a convent, and the Bellegarde matriarch still sitting pretty.

"If she has committed a crime, she will be nothing for the courts but a wicked old woman." (22.32)

Ouch. Betrayal has brought out a savage side of Newman. He doesn't much care for his would-be mother-in-the-law—and his sense of revenge is blinding enough that he thinks that the entire world will feel the same way.

"I have served faithfully this many year; but if she were to die to-morrow, I believe, before Heaven, I shouldn't shed a tear for her." (22.38)

Everyone has to justify betrayal somehow. Mrs. Bread's feelings about about Madame Bellegarde are surprisingly brutal. But who can blame her, when Mme. Bellegarde murdered her master and sold off her mistress?

"We are using dreadful words, sir, but I don't care." (22.41)

Betrayal comes in many forms. Weirdly enough, Mrs. Bread is most worried about gossiping behind her employers' back, not potentially blackmailing them. Hey: the propriety of 19th Century Europe was a walled garden. And no one knew that better than Henry James.

It must be added, too, that he was at a loss to see exactly how he could arrange to witness the operation of his thunder. (23.1)

The business of betrayal doesn't come naturally to Newman. He's kind of a limp noodle…if limp noodles also had a seriously ferocious sense of ambition.

"Half an hour hence Madame de Bellegarde will regret that she didn't learn exactly what I mean." (24.27)

Newman has to make any threat of betrayal seem convincing enough that the Bellegardes listen to him. That's not an easy task, since the Bellegardes are intimidated like a fox.

"You are like a peddler with something to sell," she said, with a little cold laugh which only partially concealed the tremor in her voice. (24.28)

The truth is that Madame Bellegarde has no idea what Newman will do. She thinks she has him figured out, but Newman owes the family no allegiance. But, as we see, Newman can't pull the trigger on his own Liam Neeson-style revenge plot. Maybe Mme. Bellegarde is a better judge of character than we thought.

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