Art and Culture
The novel begins in the Louvre Art Museum in Paris. Newman, the American, is strolling around trying to take in the great masterpieces using a guide book, so he can get some culture. James uses art, music, and architecture, as well as descriptions of cities and countryside to give the feel of Europe. It is a foreign land to Newman who is often culture shocked by what he sees. James also uses specific works of art symbolically to foreshadow the plot and themes.
The first effect of seeing work by Raphael, Titian, and Rubens is to make Newman mistrust himself, for it is an unknown language to him. He is dazzled by Murillo's Madonna (1670). Murillo painted the Madonna in a delicate and elegant way. She is a symbol of the kind of spiritual beauty Newman will recognize in Claire, Madame de Cintré. The painting by Paolo Veronese of the Wedding at Cana pictures Christ's miracle of turning water into wine. Newman likes it because it portrays a sumptuous banquet of the kind he will be attending with the upper classes of Paris. It also symbolizes his intent to find a bride in Europe, a high-class woman. Another wedding picture is mentioned: Rubens's Marriage of Marie de Medici, the Florentine princess married to Henry IV, king of France. It was a negotiated marriage, something that Claire de Bellegarde has also had to endure.
Newman meets the Marquis of Bellegarde at the opera, “Don Giovanni” by Mozart. They discuss the parallels of the opera to their own lives, not fully understanding the implications of what they say. Newman compares Claire to Donna Elvira, who, in the plot, goes to a convent, as Claire will do. Don Giovanni (Don Juan) is a good description of the playboy life and violent end of Valentin de Bellegarde, about to be killed in a duel over a woman. Urbain compares himself to the statue of Il Commendatore in the opera, the statue that comes to life in a supernatural act of revenge. Urbain is about to do the same to Newman.
When Valentin tells Newman how close he is to his sister Claire, he compares them to the Greek mythical brother and sister, Orestes and Electra. This has ominous overtones, for Orestes and Electra had to avenge the death of their father (Agamemnon) by their mother (Clytemnestra). The old Marquis of Bellegarde was similarly killed by his wife, though Claire and Valentin do not avenge him.
Other fantastic metaphors play off luxury and art objects. The marquis's young wife is like a cracked perfume bottle. The marquis is a clock image in paper mâché. Mrs. Bread is accused of being the lover of the old marquis because she wears a red ribbon when she is young. She removes the ribbon of her supposed shame and places it in a box until it is faded, like her womanhood.
Place and Architecture
Place and architecture in the novel not only carry historic weight but also symbolic weight. The Bellegardes live in the Rue de l'Université, the old district of learned societies on the Left Bank of the Seine. Urbain is a scholar who wants to protect the monarchy. Newman, on the other hand, lives on the Blvd. de Haussmann, the name of the Baron who redesigned Paris, superimposing boulevards on the old Paris. This was done under Napoleon III whom Urbain hates as an enemy of the old regime. This address indicates that Newman is nouveau riche, or newly rich, a man of business instead of from noble birth. He has gaudy gilded rooms. The Bellegarde house in Paris is in old rococo style, but of dark and shabby elegance, dated 1627. Generations of the family have been born there, proof of their status in society.
Tom Tristram, another uncultured American, leads Newman out of the boring Louvre into the Palais Royal, a nearby district of shops, restaurants and public amusements. The Tristrams live in the ColonieAmericaine, the neighborhood of wealthy Americans. Mrs. Tristram is proud of viewing the Arc de Triomphe from her balcony. General Packard, C.P. Hatch, and Kitty Upjohn are names given to representative Americans in this community to show their common origins and to imply they are intruders on the cultured scene.
Each area of Paris tells a story. As Newman walks across the bridge of the Seine to the streets of Faubourg St. Germain, the neighborhood of the old French nobility, the houses remind him of the blank walls of eastern seraglios, or Turkish harems. The image implies sexual immorality and that the inmates are slaves, like Claire, sold into marriage. The Bellegarde mansion is dark and all in shade. Newman wants to rescue the angelic Claire from this dark world, for as he says, she is made for light, not shade.
The family's country estate at Fleurières is a château, where the old marquis was killed, including a moat and iron gate, a building right out of gothic mystery fiction. It is not kept up and has a melancholy air. Claire is dressed in mourning there when she announces there is a curse on the house. The Rue d'Enfer (Street of Hell) where Claire becomes Sister Veronica in the Carmelite convent is a street of prisons and convents. All the buildings are without windows. Newman imagines her in her nun's shroud, as though she has been buried alive. He stares at the building, feeling he has visited her tomb.
James creates the American as an archetype. Physically he looks like a tall cowboy, strong, as though he has used his muscles to work. He is always seen stretching his legs, in the Louvre or in the Bellegarde salon, in a gesture that signifies expansion, ownership, and lack of constraint. Valentin admires how he seems to be at home anywhere. Newman suggests someone like the actor Gary Cooper in his roles as the handsome and honest man, naive but full of integrity. Newman's name, Christopher Newman, identifies him with America, the new world. He is the new species of human that was philosophically predicted by the 18th century enlightenment thinkers precipitating the American and French revolutions, with their democratic ideas and assumptions of the basic goodness of man. If humans were politically free and had a favorable environment, they could be virtuous, it was thought. These thinkers saw the old world, Europe, by contrast, as the remnant of feudal order and political intrigue, fostered by the monarchies and the established Church. Newman coming from a Puritan culture can only interpret a convent as a prison. James characterizes him as a new world innocent, morally superior to the crafty Europeans who try to take advantage of him.
The Bellegardes are chiefly disgusted by the American's lower class. As Valentin says, no gentleman would ever work. Newman proudly asserts he has sold leather and washtubs. These articles are vulgar to the aristocrat. Newman is a merchant trying to marry a countess! His informal dress, speech, and manners offend the aristocratic sense of decorum. Newman is not ashamed of his common origin, for that is a badge of honor in America. He is a man of action, not an idler, as he accuses the Bellegardes of being.
Newman is twice compared to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), the quintessential American self-made man of practical wisdom, able to excel in politics, science, and the art of letters. He was a morally engaged man, an abolitionist, inventor, journalist, statesman, and American diplomat to France where he was widely admired. He began work as a boy, and like Newman, quit school at age ten. He educated himself and became a founder of the new country for whom he was a spokesperson. His popular Poor Richard's Almanack (1733) extols the virtues of thrift, hard work, and honesty. Franklin, like Newman, was proud of his working-class roots. The making of money was advanced as a moral virtue for Americans. Newman feels he is a good man because he has money he earned himself without hurting anyone. Images surrounding the American suggest openness and freedom. Images of the Bellegarde family suggest something closed, locked, evil, and secret. The old marquise, for instance, is compared to a document signed and sealed, a code that cannot be changed.