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The American Essay, Research Paper
A literary technique that authors often times employ is giving to the characters a name to enhance the reader?s understanding of that character. In The American, Henry James uses this style with most of his characters? names. Often times, the names may translate into an English word, or it could even just sound like an English word. The novel is better understood because of this and the reader can get more meaning out of each character and his or her personality traits. In whichever way James chooses to depict names, they intensify the reader?s comprehension.
The main character, Christopher Newman, is a prime example of Henry James? use of this method. He is named after Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America, as he says early in the novel, "Did you ever hear of Christopher Columbus??my parents named me for him." (6). This is just relating him ever more to America and distinguishing him from a European. His last name "Newman" is very symbolic. He has traveled to Europe and Paris to basically become a "new man." He has given up his previous life of business and hard work, and is determined to live carefree and abroad. Newman changes day by day, and the reader follows along with these changes.
The name Claire de Cintré also enhances the reader?s knowledge of her as a person. "Claire" in French means "light" and "Cintré" often can be translated as "crazy" or "insane." Claire is a light in many ways. She always wears white clothing, which can be very bright and seems to almost emit a glow when she is in a room. Her personality is also very lightening. She is well liked among everyone the reader is introduced to and always seems to attract the attention of people when she is in the room. Newman says, "?if you are going into a room with Madame de Cintré, you needn?t be afraid of being noticed yourself!" (139). Claire also can be seen by the reader to be a bit "crazy." She puts on a grand façade to those around her, but she can be different. She seems to be very depressed behind the happy face that she puts on. Nobody will really speak of why her previous marriage was such a disaster, and this may be the cause of her depression. The reader can also assume that living with a mother and brother as the Marquise de Bellegarde and Urbain could drive any sane person a bit mad. All in all, Claire de Cintré is a very fitting name.
There is also a deeper meaning behind Urbain de Bellegarde?s name. "Urbain" can be translated just as it sounds ? to "urban." To many, urban life is often very distant and detached. This is just how Urbain Bellegarde is. He is a polite man, as is noted over and over by James. He is, however, not a very likeable man. His own wife, Madame de Bellegarde, admits to Newman that she is afraid him. She also says that he is "Not a man of stone, a man of wood." (231). Urbain is very distant to even his closest family and the only character in the novel that seems to truly like him is his mother, the Marquise de Bellegarde. He is not a personal man and is impassive, much like a city or urban area.
Valentin de Bellegarde seems to sound like the English word "valentine," which deals with love and the popular holiday St. Valentine?s Day. He is a man who spends much of his life caring and thinking about women. Valentin even says to Newman, "Oh the women, the women, and the things they have made me do!…of all the follies and stupidities I have committed for them I would not have missed one!" (99). It is these follies and stupidities that eventually cause the downfall and death of Valentin. He was so enchanted by Noemié Nioche that he takes part in a duel for her. Before this happens, he ironically had said to Newman, "A pretty woman is always worth one?s pains." (204). The mixture of the name given to him by Henry James and these foreshadowing comments sets the reader to not be too surprised by the later happenings of the novel.
In the case of Mrs. Tristram, the name seems to tell a good deal about her personality. "Tristram" seems to originate from the French and English word "triste," which means sad, mournful and wistful, (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary). Mrs. Tristram is all of these and more. She is a very sad woman and is disappointed with her living conditions and her marriage. She is mournful in that she did not do better for herself in the choice of a husband, which has caused her much pain. Mrs. Tristram is also very wistful in that she yearns for a better life, and seems to live superficially through Christopher Newman. She has great joys in setting him up with Claire de Cintré because she thinks of her as the perfect woman. She does not want Newman to turn out like she did with a dissatisfying wife and desire a different life because of it. Mrs. Tristram is a sad woman, but still a very passionate and likeable character.
Henry James? use of symbolic character names enhances the reader?s understanding of The American. The reader can better relate to the characters when he is given a name that sets out a basis for the characters? personalities. He knows what to expect from each character and the presence of the author is made clearer when these symbolic names are given. Its readers better comprehend a novel when this literary technique is used.
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