Study Guide

The American Suffering

By Henry James


As far as suffering goes, most of the characters in The American are pretty lucky. Everyone in Newman's social circle is filthy rich and extremely comfortable in their beautiful homes. No one is, say, going hungry.

But once you strip away all of the fancy interior décor, most of our characters have to cope with traumatic personal events. Claire's forced to marry someone for money. Newman isn't allowed to marry his beloved Claire. Madame Bellegarde has to sit on a terrible secret that would wreck her life. Hmm, maybe scratch that last one.

The real question that The American poses is who deserves to suffer. Does Claire have control over her life choices? Isn't it time Newman has a little setback in his perfect life plan? Everyone has some ability to shape how their lives turns out, but pesky little things like loyalty and love create complications that lead to suffering.

Questions About Suffering

  1. By the end of the book, is Claire suffering? How do we know?
  2. Is Newman's suffering throughout the book productive for his character? In other words, is it necessary for him to suffer in order to gain resilience?
  3. How much suffering does the Bellegarde family experience?

Chew on This

Valentin's wealth shelters him from some suffering, but he longs to do away with the safety net.

Claire exaggerates her suffering to Newman in order to justify breaking off the engagement.

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