Central Intelligence and Point of View
One of James’ contributions to the art of fiction is in his use of point of view. By point of view is meant the angle from which the story is told. For example, previous to James’ novels, much of the fiction of the day was being written from the author’s viewpoint, that is, the author was telling the story and he was directing the reader’s response to the story. Much of the fiction of the nineteenth century had the author as the storyteller, and the author would create scenes in which certain characters would be involved, but each scene would not necessarily have the same characters in them.
James’ fiction differs in his treatment of point of view. He was interested in establishing a central person about whom the story revolved. Usually. the reader would have to see all the action of the story through this character’s eyes. This central character was called at times the “central intelligence” and at times the “sentient center.” Thus in James’ fiction, we have the central character of the novel, and it is as though the central character were telling the story because we see or hear about all events through him. We the readers react to certain events as this central character would react to them.
Every scene in the novel, therefore, will be a scene which reveals something about the main character, and usually he is present in every scene. As the central intelligence, his sensibility is the dominant aspect of the novel. In The American, Newman is, of course, the central character. Every scene is limited to showing him involved in some type of situation, and every scene confines itself to the interests of this central character.
James wrote fiction in an era before the modern technique of the “stream of consciousness” was established. In the modern technique, the author feels free to go inside the mind of the character. But in James’ time, this was not yet an established technique. Thus, since James as a novelist wanted to remain outside the novel, that is, wanted to present his characters with as much objectivity and realism as possible, he created the use of a confidante.
The confidante is a person of great sensibility to whom the main character reveals his innermost thoughts (as long as they are within the bounds of propriety) and to whom he discusses his problems. The confidante is essentially a listener and in some cases an advisor. This technique of having a confidante to whom the main character can talk serves a double function. First of all, it allows the reader to see what the main character is thinking, and secondly, it gives us a more rounded view of the action. For example, after something has happened to the main character, he can often go to the confidante and in their discussion of the event, we the readers see and understand the various subtle implications of this situation more clearly.
The confidante is also a person who is usually somewhat removed from the central action. For example, Mrs. Tristram in The American is not directly involved in the central action of the novel, except that she does instigate the action by introducing the main character to the woman he later seeks to marry. But in some novels, the confidante can play a more important function in the main action.
Essentially, the confidante observes the action from a distance and comments on this action. She is a person of exceptional sensitivity and perception, who allows the main character to respond more deeply and subtly to certain situations.
James is a very careful artist who uses rather often and freely the technique of foreshadowing a later action. This means that he has given hints in the early parts of the novel about some important thing that is going to happen later in the novel. Thus, this adds a touch of realism to the novel because so many things have foreshadowed the main action that the reader should not be surprised to discover the action at the end.
The best way in which to see James’ use of foreshadowing is to examine one or two central events which have been already foreshadowed. The most important thing in Newman’s life, or his most important and unusual action, involves his burning of the letter which would condemn the Bellegardes as murderers. The average individual would have undoubtedly used this letter and received the revenge so desirable. But James has very carefully let the reader know that Newman is not the type of person who seeks revenge simply for the sake of revenge. The central scene which foreshadows Newman’s later action, occurs early in the novel, immediately after he first meets Tom Tristram. He tells about a time that he was on the way to the stock market where he was going to get even with a man who had once played a very dirty trick on him. He tells how suddenly the entire idea of revenge became repulsive to him. And even though it meant that he would lose some sixty thousand dollars, he decided not to carry through with it.
For Newman the idea of revenge simply for the sake of revenge was obscene. He would have freely used the letter against the Bellegardes if he thought that by using it he could obtain Madame de Cintre as a wife. But since the letter would not help him gain his principal aim, he could take no pleasure in the revenge by itself. It would have been empty and meaningless. Aside, therefore, from this scene early in the novel, every aspect of Newman’s character also attests to the fact that he would not be the type who drives for revenge. He has one thing that supremely matters in his life, and he functions solely to attain that end. When it is no longer attainable, he sees and feels no need for gratuitous revenge. Madame de Cintre’s action has also been foreshadowed. First she is frequently described as living the life of a nun. The Bellegarde house is frequently described as some sinister looking monastery. Even Valentin speaks of the high probability that someone in his or Madame de Cintre’s situation would be best off in a monastery or nunnery. Furthermore, Madame de Cintre is described in terms of a person too good for this world. She has a quality of “other-worldliness” about her.
In general, when one reflects or rereads the novel carefully, he will find many samples of foreshadowing. Mrs. Tristram’s statement early in the novel to Newman that she would like to see him in a difficult situation is later fulfilled. Madame de Cintre often said that she would never marry again. Thus, every action that is central to the novel has been prepared for by many hints and many types of foreshadowing.
The Renunciation Theme
Perhaps the most dominant idea that runs throughout all of James’ fiction is the idea of renunciation. This is usually seen in a character who wants one thing badly and for some more noble reason, gives up the thing most desired for some other thing or for some other reason.
The use of this theme of renunciation implies that James’ characters possess a certain quality or nobility in their character. This theme in The American is seen through Newman’s refusal to take revenge against the person on the stock market who had once played a dirty trick on him. It is also seen more nobly in his refusal to use the letter which would have hurt the Bellegardes. This type of renunciation allows Newman to be viewed with a certain bit of nobility.
The main use of this theme is seen in Madame de Cintre’s renunciation of life and entrance into the Carmelite nunnery. There is a type of living death involved in her renunciation. Of course, it could be maintained that she was the type of character who is too good for the world and that the only place for her would be in such a nunnery. But her actions are certainly indicative of James’ use of renunciation.
As most critics explain the action or as Madame de Cintre suggests to Newman, she would prefer not to live in the world if she could not become his wife. Since the latter course is blocked for her, there is only one thing that she can do and that is to enter the nunnery. Of course in choosing the most difficult and arduous order of nuns, her renunciation takes on a particular type of horror. Hers is viewed as a living death. The songs, the place, and the clothing are just the opposite of all the things which have been described in connection with Claire de Cintre.
James does not use symbolism in the way that modern authors do. His use of symbolism is perhaps more delicate and in one sense more obvious. There are no hidden symbols and no need to search for symbolic interpretations. He uses symbolism in the way that he uses foreshadowing. In fact, in a James novel, the two are closely related.
Symbolism is often seen in James’ description of something. The apartment that Newman rented was at first described as being magnificent to him. But later as he learned more about the European way of life, he began to see that the “gilded walls” of the apartment were wearing thin, and finally that the gilding was peeling off. This simply symbolizes Newman’s more increased awareness of certain aspects of European culture.
Symbolism is also used in describing a person. Madame de Cintre is often described in terms of a statue or a piece of ivory, and in terms of the dove who has folded its wings. These descriptions later become symbolic as Madame de Cintre does fold her wings and enters the nunnery where she lives a life that could be considered in terms of a piece of statuary.
Aside from the use of social contrasts, James also used contrast in many other ways. Perhaps the most obvious is in his use of Mademoiselle Noemie and her father. In these people we have a tremendous contrast to the aristocratic European. Contrast is also used to point up or illuminate qualities of the characters. James gives us brief pictures of other types of Americans and by contrasting these other Americans with Newman, we get a better view of the noble qualities possessed by Newman.