In “The Europeans”, the Americans (symbolized by the Wentworths) are Puritans who abide by strict Puritan rules, which promote the Puritan way of life. The Europeans, on the other hand (symbolized by Eugenia and Felix), are not Puritans but are sophisticated, opportunistic, and sometimes lax in their way of life. This sometimes causes confusion and conflict when their lives are enmeshed. But it also sometimes brings about an understanding, respect, tolerance and appreciation of one another’s beliefs, values, cultures and opinions.
In the American culture, James appreciated the ‘good’, which we associate with the moral earnestness of the Puritans; in the older European culture he admired the life lived, not in terms of moral ideas, but of aristocratic style. The most important theme of his novel, called “The International Theme” emerges in a portrayal of the relationship or clash between these two cultures.
James was interested in the moral perceptions of the characters – perceptions which emerged as a result of bringing together the two cultures, the one with its apparent naivety or cultural innocence, the other, with its wider experience and sophistication that verged on decadence.
The author is not severely criticising European values, or American values. James is not ‘taking sides’. The author is able to direct gentle satire at European sophistication as well at the ‘stiffness’ of the Americans. The European characters Eugenia and Felix embody a highly refined form of opportunism. They become involved with a group of Americans who embody the more conservative quality of discipline. The opposition between opportunism and discipline is a central idea that gives the novel its dramatic unity. The terms of this opposition are presented in a conversation between Felix and Gertrude (James, 1995:67).
Mr Wentworth confides in Felix telling him about his son being suspended for drinking (James, 1995: 93). Felix offers to talk to his son. Felix also confides in Mr Wentworth about his ‘never making plans’, and his ‘living for the moment’ (James, 1995: 92). Felix does not take advantage of the goodness of his American relatives by taking advantage of his nieces (making love to Gertrude) (James, 1995: 92). Felix grew up in a tradition which had strong morals and which complimented the qualities of goodness of the Americans. Felix also refrains from telling Mr Wentworth about the interest he has in his daughter. He realizes that it is not the right time to broach the subject.
Felix in turn confides in Mr Wentworth, telling him that the Wentworths do not amuse themselves. Felix’s spontaneity, outspokenness and easy going, friendly nature, appeals to Mr Wentworth and makes it easy for him to confide in Felix. Mr Wentworth realized that Felix has very good qualities in spite of his living for today and not making plans for the future. Mr Wentworth is willing to listen to Felix’s advice. However, because of Mr Wentworth’s strict Puritan ideas, he does not take Felix’s advice in telling his son to visit Eugenia often so that she will exercise a ‘helpful influence’. We see another side of Felix that is in absolute conflict to the Puritan view when he tells Eugenia that she should encourage Clifford to come and see her even if it includes making love to Clifford and that would be “no great matter” (James, 1995: 97).
Mr Wentworth is very proud to be a Puritan – when Gertrude says: “the Baroness is a wife of a prince” to which Mr Wentworth replies: “we are all princes here” (James, 1995:48).
James does not take sides of either the Americans or Europeans, by making one group morally superior to the other. The clash of cultures is evident and Felix offers to paint his uncles portrait; and here the satire against New England’s angularity, its unbending stiffness, is seen in Mr Wentworth’s inability to accept well intended compliments (James, 1995:62). Here Felix is unaware that his words are conveying a sense of injury to Mr Wentworth – particularly when he describes his uncle’s face as ‘wasted and emaciated’; because his word merely convey the artist’s point of view, he appears to have complete disregard for the older man’s feelings. Mr Wentworth responds as he does, because of his simple Puritanism or his cultural naivety. Felix fails to realize this and blabbers on, adding insult to the injury, because of his own naivety. So again the representatives of each culture – American and European are, in their different ways, both innocent.
Noteworthy is the incident where Felix asks Mr Wentworth if he may make a sketch of his head (James, 1995: 62). Mr Wentworth’s shocked reply presents, in a delightfully comic manner, a significant aspect of the international situation: Old World Catholicism in conflict with New World Puritanism. Felix appreciate Mr Wentworth largely form an aesthetic standpoint. His aesthetic vision enables him to transcend the division between the Old and New Worlds.
Gertrude does not respond to the Europeans charm of her cousins. Gertrude is sensitively aware of the crippling effects of a Puritan background and, as a result, is regarded by a family as being ‘different’ (James, 1995:65). While Charlotte is naïve, sober, Gertrude is restless, on her guard, and clearly more open to opportunism. She is consciously concerned with and endeavours to look pretty, where as the conservative Charlotte thinks this is morally wrong. For Gertrude, Mr Brand represents discipline and Felix represents opportunity. Her awareness of what Felix has to offer her highly imaginative sensibility is pictured in their first meeting (James, 1995:24). Here James conveys, through striking fairytale imagery of beauty and elegance, the essence of Gertrude’s ambitions.
Felix and Eugenia both represent a form of opportunism, but whereas Felix, despite his materialistic motives, reveals a great capacity for innocent pleasure, Eugenia is an adventuress, motivated by self interest. Felix with is artistic sensibility, finds everything delightful and is even restrained from passing harsh judgement on his rival, Mr Brand. He sees America as a ‘paradise’ (James, 1995:66), in contrast to his sister’s first impression of the land of opportunities: she hated it (James, 1995:6), yet she tolerates the lack of sophistication or mannerisms in order to obtain material security through marriage.
Robert Acton was deeply in love with her, yet he would not marry her, because she was not honest. Acton has what James calls “a natural shrewdness” which causes him to question Eugenia’s motives in coming to Boston. He is by no means an innocent, artless, American Puritan. He is a well balanced character and is sincere. This is evident when he decides to dismiss his suspicions about Eugenia and succumbs to her charm (James, 1995:121). Eugenia’s reply to Acton’s Niagara proposal sounds like a brush off. She does not elicit our sympathy, because her European sophistication prevents her from responding naturally and sincerely. In the final chapter of the book, Acton discovers that Eugenia has been encouraging Clifford and because of this, becomes less susceptible to her charms. He also suspects that she has lied to him about her ‘renunciation’. In his own mind, he has already rejected Eugenia and, by means of his subtle questions, he permits her to see that he has accessed her as a mercenary husband-hunter; at the same time, by witnessing her reactions, he confirms his suspicions.
The difference between Europeans and Americans manifests itself in particular in the expression of feelings and emotions: the former are very sensitive, love is more important than money. Moreover, American people are more straight-laced and they have closer links with tradition. The most important thing in life for those living in the ‘New World’ is, ironically, respecting old traditions and accepting the rules of good morality. In the meetings of opposing values, those of New England emerge as superior to those in Europe. However, neither set of values is depicted in black and white.
* De Jager, L. 2004. Departemental Notes – The Europeans.
* Gard, R. 1968. Henry James, The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
* James, H. 1995. The Europeans. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
* Powers, L. 1970. Henry James – An Introdution and Interpretation. USA: Barnes & Noble, Inc.