Study Guide

The American Summary

By Henry James

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The American Summary

Christopher Newman's strutting his stuff around the Louvre, pretending to look at art, when he runs into the gorgeous young Parisian Noémie Nioche making copies of paintings. He promises to shell out 2,000 francs because—ahem—she's a skilled artist. Shortly after, Newman runs right into his old war pal, Tom Tristram. Tristram invites Newman over for dinner to catch up.

Now, Newman isn't shy about the fact that he's pretty rich. He tells the Tristrams over dinner that he's looking for the perfect wife in France. Bam: Mrs. Tristram tells Newman that she has the perfect woman in mind for him. The woman's name is Claire de Cintré.

She's painfully beautiful and aristocratic. Perfect, right? Mrs. Tristram arranges for Newman and Claire to "accidentally" meet at her house a few days later. Newman manages to finagle an invite to Claire's house to get to know her better. The dude's got game. Newman goes to visit Claire, but a protective older brother type claims she's not home.

In the meantime, M. Nioche, Noémie's dad, shows up on Newman's doorstep with the picture Newman shelled out for at the Louvre. M. Nioche admits that he's worried about Noémie's future, leading the kind-hearted Newman to promise her a dowry in exchange for some more pictures. Noémie has a slightly different take on things: she tells Newman that she's a terrible painter. The only talent she has is for scaling the social ladder.

Newman takes off for the summer, traveling around Europe and getting some much-needed culture. When he gets back to Paris, he heads straight to Claire's place. This time, she's at home with a different brother. Newman gets along well with Valentin…and not just because he's got a crush on his sister. Newman comes away from the visit with stars in his eyes for Claire. He's practically in love.

When Valentin and Newman are hanging out a week or so later, Valentin gives Newman the lowdown on Claire. She married a miserable old fool, the Count de Cintré, when she was only eighteen in order to follow her family's wishes. The Count died and Claire became a rich widow.

But when Claire found out that the Count was into some shady business stuff, she decided to renounce the fortune. The only way Claire's family would get on board with that decision was if she promised to do their bidding for the next ten years. Oh yeah—but they couldn't force her to marry anyone.

Newman tries to enlist Valentin's help to make Claire his wife. Valentin happily gives Newman some pointers, although he doesn't think he has a shot. Always the optimist, Newman visits Claire and immediately proposes. Whoa.

Claire isn't totally on board, but she agrees to get to know him a little better if he doesn't say the word "marriage" for six months. Something tells us Claire isn't a fan of The Princess Bride.

Next step: Newman has to make nice with the family. He arranges a meeting with Madame de Bellegarde and Urbain (the mean brother). Newman doesn't exactly know how to appeal to the aristocracy: he talks all about his humble upbringing and how he managed to strike it rich.

Finally, Newman strikes up his courage and tells Claire's mom that he's asked for her hand. Like Claire, Madame de Bellegarde isn't all in. She agrees to think about it, though.

Remember Noémie? M. Nioche's worried sick about her moneygrubbing habits. He asks Newman to intervene. Newman makes the mistake of taking along his pal Valentin, who immediately falls head over heels for Noémie.

Newman's too busy plotting how to get in with the Bellegarde family to care much about the Noémie situation. When he gets a dinner invite to the Bellegarde family chateau, he knows everything's peachy: Urbain gives him the thumbs-up to pursue Claire.

Over the next six months, Newman gets to know Claire better. He also becomes friends with Mrs. Bread, a loyal family maid who totally adores Claire. Finally, Newman proposes to Claire for real, and she accepts. Claire's mom is none too happy, but she plans an engagement party to celebrate the happy couple. Lord Deepmere, a random rich cousin always hanging around the Bellegarde place, is invited.

On the night of the engagement party, Newman notices Lord Deepmere deep in conversation with Claire (pun intended). But Claire seems otherwise happy with Newman, so he doesn't think much of it. Newman attends a performance of the opera Don Giovanni and notices some serious drama going down: Valentin and a chap named Stanislas Kapp are exchanging some heated words over Noémie.

It seems both fellows are in love. Much to Newman's dismay, Kapp and Valentin decide to duel in order to settle it.

Newman's got another crisis on his hands: all of a sudden, Claire tells him she can't marry him. Apparently, Madame de Bellegarde and Urbain are forcing Claire to rescind her acceptance of the proposal and marry Lord Deepmere instead. Newman is just too "new money."

Before he can deal with the crisis, Newman gets word that Valentin's been mortally injured in Switzerland. He rushes to his pal's side, but it's too late. Before he dies, Valentin tells Newman that there's a family secret that might help him win back Claire. Mrs. Bread knows all.

Newman returns to France for Valentin's funeral (and to see Claire, obviously). Claire still refuses to marry him. In fact, she's not planning to marry Lord Deepmere at all—she's going to enter a convent. Valentin immediately finds Mrs. Bread and gets her to agree to a secret meeting.

At the meeting, Mrs. Bread reveals that—dun, dun, dun—Claire's father, the late Marquis, was poisoned by his wife. Apparently, he opposed Claire's first marriage. Mrs. Bread even has proof in the form of a letter signed by the late Marquis.

Before resorting to blackmail, Newman tries to track Claire down at the convent. He fails to find her, but he does have a deliciously juicy confrontation with Madame de Bellegarde and Urbain. Newman threatens to expose all, but Madame de Bellegarde doesn't cave. Urbain seems a little more worried, but he ultimately refuses to let Newman back into Claire's good graces.

Distraught, Newman heads off for London while he thinks about whether to resort to blackmail. While chilling in London, he runs into none other than Noémie and her dear old dad—along with Lord Deepmere. He's disgusted by how she's succeeded.

Newman returns to France and forlornly walks by Claire's convent before deciding to give her up for good. He doesn't even try to expose the Bellegarde family. Instead, he burns the incriminating letter. Mrs. Tristram approves.

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