'The American' and the Romance of Modernity

By Yoshii, Chiyo | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

'The American' and the Romance of Modernity


Yoshii, Chiyo, Papers on Language & Literature


It is generally considered that there is a sharp discontinuity in the narrative structure of Henry James's The American, that one mode of narration is suddenly and unexpectedly switched to another, completely different, mode halfway through the course of the story. Peter Brooks emphasizes "its [the work's] apparent change of course two-thirds of the way through," stating that "it changes radically in tone and mode at the moment of Christopher Newman's betrayal by the Bellegardes.... What has up to this point been largely a social comedy, broad, amused, generally good-natured, suddenly calls forth the emotional conditions and the vocabulary of melodrama, unleashing a new and heightened drama for which the reader had scarely [sic] been prepared, one that alters the very stakes of the novel" (43). In summarizing the critical treatment of the novel, John Carlos Rowe presents a similar view, which is usually favored by critics, that The American is "a formally divided work, which begins realistically enough and ends in a flurry of events drawn from the popular romance and supernatural thriller" ("The Politics of the Uncanny" 79). But does this structural change, the swerving from social comedy or satire, a witty and realistic rendering of interaction of various social types in an urban setting, to a presentation of a melodramatic or romantic realm of extravagance, fantasy and dream, really occur in The American?

In the preface to the novel, James provides a well-known formulation of the romance. Romance is made of a certain kind of experience, "experience liberated, so to speak," says James, "experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered," relieved of "the inconvenience of a related, a measurable state, a state subject to all our vulgar communities" (10). Here James insists that this form of literature does not reflect the minute details of ordinary everyday life but that it abandons the realistic requirement of mimesis and is concerned exclusively with a sphere of fantasy which escapes the whole network of social relations. This romantic sphere is compared by James to a "balloon" which, once the rope tying it to the earth is cut, "swings apart from the globe," soaring high into the sky, and in which one feels "at large and unrelated" (10-11). As in a balloon flying higher and higher, in a romance one can rejoice in the sheer freedom from the confinement of earthly things. What informs the romance is thus the absence of social elements or the conditions of actuality and hence the dominance of an intensified sense of unreality.

From this perspective, it seems not unnatural to see as romantic the scene that Brooks and other critics regard as the point of turning from a realistic novel toward a romance, the one in which Christopher Newman's engagement to Claire de Cintre is abruptly canceled. For here Newman feels as if he were hurled into a nightmarish, unreal world infiltrated by incomprehensible, unfathomable evil. Is this, however, the first time Newman sees the surrounding world as having no grain of actuality? Has he not always looked at it in that way? And does he himself always assume the role of a romantic character who turns away from serious realities and constantly moves toward his favorite dreams? If so, the work does not veer into a romance in its second half but continues to tell a romance from the very outset. What then is that romance? In this essay, I will delineate what James presents as a romance in The American and will show the striking similarity between the romantic world seen there and the work's contemporary society. Having done so, I will go on to closely examine James's particular stance toward what is represented in romantic vocabularies in the novel, which is by no means unified.

A certain romantic element emerges already at the beginning of the story where Newman notices Noemie Nioche copying Murillo's Madonna in the Louvre and converses with her concerning the purchase of her painting. …

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