Study Guide

The American Suffering

By Henry James


They were not sins; they were sufferings. (6.11)

Newman assumes that Claire has done something wrong that led to her tragic situation. Not the case, buddy.

And what does she suffer from? (6.12)

There's always an assumption that people can pinpoint the exact cause of their suffering. Newman's about to learn that it's much more ambiguous. Welcome to being a character in a Henry James novel, Newman!

She made, at eighteen, a marriage that was expected to be brilliant, but that turned out like a lamp that goes out; all smoke and bad smell. (8.14)

Valentin unconsciously justifies his family's decision to marry off Claire by saying it was a no-brainer. Instead, he realizes that it was a no-heart'er.

The marriage had been made in your horrible French way, Newman continued, made by two families without her having any voice? (8.16)

Newman is Judgy McJudgerson. Perhaps he's right, although he often assumes that Claire has no voice. But he also doesn't really value Claire for her voice or her opinions—he judges her for how she'll help him achieve his dream of a perfect life.

To see you will be nothing but a distress for me; there is no need, therefore, to wait for what you call brighter days. (20.2)

Claire seems resigned to suffering for the rest of her days. To be fair, she's had a lot of practice and suffering is probably second nature to her now.

"To you, to whom I have done this hard and cruel thing, the only reparation I can make is to say I know it, I feel it!" (20.10)

Claire and Newman are constantly trying to understand each other. Here, Claire finally feels like she has access to Newman's emotional state…possibly because she's been made to suffer in a similar way.

To accept his injury and walk away without looking behind him was a stretch of good-nature of which he found himself incapable. (21.1)

Newman isn't particularly used to suffering. He's a stubborn fellow who usually gets what he wants. In fact, he thinks that acceptance is a sign of weakness. Hey, that's not so different from Valentin's desire to fight in a duel, is it? Good work, Mr. James.

They worked on her feelings; they knew that was the way. (23.1)

The true cause of Claire's suffering is her extreme empathy. She feels deeply that she should be loyal to her family. (To be fair, she also has more than her fair share of deep-seated trauma from having been treated like a chess piece for so long.)

But the dullness of his days pleased him; his melancholy, which was settling into a secondary stage, like a healing wound, had in it a certain acrid, palatable sweetness. (26.1)

Newman is gradually becoming used to his state of suffering. At a certain point, he even embraces it…sort of.

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