Set in 1868, American author Henry James’s novel The American
(1877) is an account of a wealthy American businessman's attempts to find a wife in Parisian high society. It blends both comedy and melodrama to illustrate the absurdity and pomp of nineteenth-century courtship rituals; the strict upper-class codes of conduct and ethics (or lack thereof); and the enduring legacy of the "garish American" stereotype.
Christopher Newman is in his thirties, but a life of hard work and diligent money management has given him the opportunity to retire early. Now, he has his sights set on marriage. Finding no suitable wife in the United States, he goes to Europe in the hopes of finding a partner that meets his expectations.
The novel opens as Christopher visits the Louvre. There he meets a beautiful painter Noémie Nioche who is making copies of the paintings on display, and he buys one from her. He also meets her father, M. Nioche. Not long after, Christopher crosses paths with Tom Tristam, an old friend he knew during the war, and the two meet up for dinner, along with Tom's wife. Over the meal, Christopher tells them of the mission that has brought him to France: He intends to find a spouse. Mrs. Tristram immediately decides to play matchmaker and informs Christopher that she knows the ideal mate for him.
The refined Claire de Cintré is unknowingly set up by Mrs. Tristram, who arranges for Christopher and Claire to run into each other at the Tristrams’ house. When they meet, Christopher encourages Claire to invite him over to her house later, and she agrees. But when he shows up, her brother Urbain says Claire is not at home and turns Christopher away.
Meanwhile, M. Nioche arrives at Christopher's house to drop off the painting Christopher purchased from Noémie. M. Nioche confesses his anxiety over Noémie's future, so Christopher offers to set up a dowry for her if she provides him with more paintings. Noémie, however, doesn't have much faith in her painting abilities. She would rather pursue a life of leisure as a kept woman.
After a jaunt around Europe for the summer, Christopher returns to Paris in the fall. He also returns to Claire's door, hoping to reconnect with her. Another brother, Valentin, answers this time and lets him in. Christopher immediately falls for Claire, and his feelings are only intensified by the rapport he establishes with Valentin. Valentin reveals Claire's rather unusual backstory. As a young woman, she married a crotchety old count, who died not long after and left her a fortune. But after his death, she found out the count conducted underhanded business dealings, making the money she inherited—in her eyes—tainted. She renounced the inheritance, much to her family's chagrin. Her family agreed not to disown her over the decision if she essentially became their personal servant, and she agreed, so long as they didn't push her into another marriage.
Though Valentin does not think Claire will ever fall in love with Christopher, he gives him some advice on how to win her over. Christopher jumps the gun, goes to her and proposes. Surprisingly, she doesn't outright reject him but agrees to get to know him better. In addition, she forbids him from saying the word marriage
for the next six months.
In her attempt to get to know him better, Claire urges Christopher to meet her mother. She is quite aristocratic, and Christopher isn't sure how to connect with her. He soon tells Claire's mother about his marriage proposal, but she isn't sold on the idea, though she doesn't reject it out of hand, either. Like Claire, she needs time to think and get to know him. Urbain comes around and eventually gives his approval to the marriage, but Claire's mother struggles to make peace with the idea.
In the meantime, Noémie is focusing her efforts less on painting and more on social climbing. M. Nioche grows frustrated with her and hopes Christopher can help. When Christopher arrives with Valentin in tow, Valentin promptly falls for Noémie.
Months pass, and Christopher continues his courtship of Claire. At last, six months go by, the word can again be said, he asks her to marry him, and she says yes.
Things aren't going as smoothly for Valentin, who hears that Noémie has become a courtesan. After a man named Stanislaus Kapp insults her at the opera, Valentin agrees to a duel with Stanislaus. Christopher tries to talk him out of it but is unsuccessful. Just as Valentin sets off to Switzerland to fight in the duel, Claire's family calls off the engagement with Christopher, and they send Claire away. Reeling, Christopher then gets word that Valentin is on his deathbed after the duel. Going to his side, Christopher learns from Valentin that the family harbors a dark secret: When Claire's father was dying, her mother threw out his medicine and refused to let doctors see him until it was too late.
Christopher plots to bribe the family into allowing him to marry Claire. But after some consideration, he chooses a more moral path and simply leaves Paris. He continues his travels and happens upon Noémie—now a flourishing courtesan—in a London park; he then goes off to New York and San Francisco. However, Christopher returns to Paris when he hears that Claire has become a nun. He looks at the walls of the convent where she now lives, then leaves Paris for good.