The American: The Numeral Six as Symbolic of the Anti-Christ
In The American (1877), Henry James uses the numeral six extensively. Its extraordinary usage suggests that James employed it as a motif, not just a numeral. Centering on the theme of good vs. evil, James gave his protagonist, Christopher Newman, a salient moral conviction, representative of goodness, and furtively used the biblical meaning of the number six to underscore evil. Thus, if in the religious sense the greatest evil is represented by the anti-Christ, then, Henry James, a religious man, used the numeral six as its symbol.
The American: The Numeral Six as Symbolic of the Anti-Christ
Henry James’s The American (1877) tells the story of Christopher Newman, an American who travels to Europe “to get the best out of it …to see all the great things (55).” Newman wants much from his Europe experience: to meet people, to visit places, to see art, to experience nature, but more importantly, to rest. He even mulls over the idea of finding a suitable woman to marry. Through twists and turns, interspersed with moral self-questioning, Newman finds the suitable woman, agrees to a marriage proposal, and participates in an atypical courtship. Ultimately, Newman suffers through a plan contrived against him, which thwarts the marriage.
During Newman’s travails, the question of good vs. evil stands out as a primary thematic principle. To emphasize this theme, James utilizes as a motif the numeral six. One meaning associated with the numeral six—evil—is found in the Bible’s book of Revelation. In Revelation, the number 666 symbolizes the beast—the Anti-Christ. James may have used the six in The American to symbolize it, too:
[Johanan] saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like
a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on
its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose
mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come
down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to
perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to
make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived.
Also, it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and
slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or
sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its
name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number
of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.
(HarperCollins Study Bible, Revelation 13.11–18)
In Revelation, it is the 666 who controls fire, making flames “come down from heaven to
James begins The American with the words, “On a brilliant day,” and ends it with Newman looking into the flames emanating from a friend’s fireplace (33). In many religions, fire is associated with “renewed” life, but in most Christian religions, renewed life may mean living eternally in the fires of hell with the 666. James’ allusion to fire in the beginning was to emphasize Newman’s desire for a “renewed” life.
In Psychoanalysis of Fire (1968), Gaston Bachelard presents his theory on the symbolism of fire: “An element of place symbolism associated with fire is day time and specifically noon when the sun's light and heat is the greatest. The association with the sun makes fire an above space phenomen[on] rather than a below or within space phenomena” (7). Using Bachelard’s theory on the sun’s association with fire, one can assume that a brilliant day can be created only by God (good). God creates fire through His creation of the sun:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a
formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from
God swept over the face of waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and
there was light. And God saw that light was good; and God separated the light
from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.
Conversely, a fire burning in a fireplace, like the one Newman sees at the end, is controlled by man, capable of doing both good and evil. While fires made by the 666 deceive “the inhabitants of earth,” being entirely evil, the lit fireplace into which Newman gazes is good. Its flames consume a letter almost used to avenge a deception perpetrated upon him. This comparison of the beginning and the ending of the novel further the premise that the theme in The American from beginning to end is one of good vs. evil. James uses the numeral six to illuminate the theme.
James first reveals the numeral six as Newman discusses his lack of anger with his old friend Tom’s wife, Lizzie Tristram: “I am never in a fury […] never angry.” Mrs. Tristram replies rather portentously, “Before I have known you six months I shall see you in a fine fury” (66). The six is brought into play in relationship with anger, but it is juxtaposed with evil.
James’ first use of the numeral six foretells the anger Newman will feel later. At this point, Newman hasn’t even met the woman who will send him into a fury. But several days after the conversation regarding anger, Newman calls on the Tristram household when he is introduced to Madam Claire de Bellegarde de Cintré, a young widowed friend of the Tristrams. After a short tête-à-tête with Madam Cintré, Newman asks for, and receives, permission to call on her. Although Newman’s first visit amounts to nothing more than an exchange of pleasantries with Madam Cintré, he does receive an invitation to visit again after she returns from an extended summer vacation. At summer’s end, Newman calls upon Madame Cintré for the second time and even proposes marriage to her, but she refuses. He pleads with her to at least allow him to continue to visit and to reconsider his proposal at a later date. She agrees, but not without a caveat. Standing by the fireplace next to Newman, significantly, Madam Cintré says to him, “But I will see you only on this condition: that you say nothing more in the same way [marriage] ‘for six months’” (172). “Very well; I promise,” Newman says. Once again the six appears, but this time James presents it in its relationship to fire. That the promise by Newman to Madam Cintré is made while standing next to a fire signals its importance.
Bachelard elaborates on the symbolic meaning of fire by calling it the “ultra-living element”:
It shines in paradise. It burns in hell. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in
our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers
itself with the warmth of love. Or it can go back down into the substance and
hide there, latent and pent-up, like hate and vengeance. (7)
The warmth of the fire, like “the warmth of love,” enveloped Newman and Madam Cintré as they stand next to the fireplace facing the flames of goodness, not of the 666.
Another six appears when Newman pays Monsieur Nioche “three thousand francs” for a terrible copy of the Madonna, which Nioche’s self-prostituted daughter, Noémie, has painted. M. Nioche proclaims, “We are rich for six months (84).” In this scene, James uses the numeral six twice, once in relationship to the time of six months, and again when Newman orders six more paintings from Noémie (85). Newman reasons that if he buys the copies, Noémie will have a dowry for marriage, for he does this knowing that Noémie is only posing as a painter to disguise her prostitution. He also knows that this offer for the paintings far exceeds what Madam Nioche can earn by selling her body. This buying and selling is analogous to Revelation:
Also, [the 666] causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free
and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can
buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the
number of its name. (13.11-18)
The allegory seems to describe the beast as a copy of Jesus, one who is wounded with a sword, crucified, and then resurrected as the Redeemer—a deception. Prior to his arrival in Paris, Newman was deceived out of “sixty thousand dollars,” but he is not deceived by the copyist, Noémie, who often operates in an ambit of evil (56), though Newman is deceived later by others. Monsieur Nioche is not deceived by Noémie either; he calls her a “franche coquette,” comparing his daughter to his deceased wife by saying, “She comes honestly by it. Her mother was one before her! She was my purgatory, monsieur!” he tells Newman (89). One finds another six when James tells about Noémie’s having once turned down a job that paid “six hundred francs a year.”
Nioche’s calling his wife “my purgatory,” plus the numerous sixes used in association with his daughter Noémie, is not coincidental for it is the mark of the 666.
James associates two more sixes with Madamoiselle Noémie Nioche. She lives in a house with “six pairs of stairs” above a glove-cleaning shop. Newman learns of the location of Noémie’s quarters from Valentin de Bellegarde, de Cintré’s younger brother, now a friend to Newman. Fortuitously, Valentin runs into the owner of the shop, a former social contact, who tells him “her [own] history for the past six years,” including that of Noémie (256). Valentin then passes on this information on to Newman, which includes an assessment of Noémie’s clandestine profession. Using Bachelard’s “above” and “below” space phenomenon theory regarding fire, one can assume that Noémie, a copyist and a prostitute, living above a woman who makes a “good” living, is synonymous with the beast.
A household with a greater prominence than Noémie’s is the Bellegarde residence, which Newman describes as “like something in a play […] that dark old house over there looks as if wicked things had been done in it, and might be done again (121).” To further inculcate into the readers’minds the Bellegarde’s evil-looking household, James describes the Marquise de Bellegarde’s salon as a “vast high room, with elaborate and ponderous moldings.” The Marquise, Claire de Cintré’s mother, is sitting “in a deep armchair, near the fire [of course], …dressed in black.” The salon is “illuminated by half–a–dozen  candles, placed in odd corners (178).”
Another fire scene in the Bellegarde’s “dark old house,” has Newman entering the salon where Marquis Urbain de Bellegarde, Claire’s older brother, is “stationed before the fire (204).” By now, the reader knows that the Marquis and the Marquise de Bellegard are rarely far from fire. Madam de Cintré, too, is near the fire as another six appears in the novel. With her niece on her lap, Madam de Cintré regales her with a story about “Florabella.” Madam Cintré looks up at Newman, shakes his hand, but continues telling the story, “Poor Florabella had suffered terribly…she had had nothing to eat for six months,” said her niece. “Yes, but when the six months were over, she had a plum-cake […] that quite set her up again (205).” James is alluding to Newman’s promise not to mention marriage to Madam de Cintré for six months. At the end of the purgatorial six months, Newman again proposes. This time the proposal being accepted by Cintré.
Later, when Newman calls on Valentin at his home, the two entertain themselves discussing the exploits of Mademoiselle Nioche. Valentin changes the subject by asking, “And when does your marriage take place?” Hesitantly, Newman replies, “About six weeks hence (266).” The marriage is announced, and at the engagement party hosted by Marquise de Bellegarde at her “old dark house,” the groom is introduced to the Bellegardes’ friends, the French noblesse. Newman meets “half-a-dozen  old men,” remarking later, “The people here look very much alike (277).” One can assume that the old dark house is symbolic of Hades, a place of evil. If the Bellegarde household looks as if “wicked things had been done in it,” then perhaps James is trying to tell us that the six old men look like they can use some “renewed life,” such as the beast offers. James may be telling us as much when he describes the Marquis’ demeanor as he introduces Newman to his guests:
If the marquis was going about as a bear leader [trainer], if the fiction
of Beauty and the Beast was supposed to have found its companion-piece,
the general impression appeared to be that the bear was a very fair imitation
of humanity. (280)
Newman thinks the party went well, yet he senses that something has gone amiss. He can‘t identify the problem, so he drops the matter altogether, not knowing that his behavior has given rise to a scheme that will create conflict in his impending marriage. James uses the party scene to showcase the differences between Newman and the Marquise and Marquis Bellegarde. One gets the sense, in this scene, that James also is creating the conflict of good versus evil (morality) by using those differences as the reason to end the wedding plans.
In a subsequent scene, Newman attends Don Giovanni, an opera wherein the protagonist dies and is cast into the fires of hell (289). Newman spies Madame Emmeline, the Marquis de Bellegarde’s wife, sitting alone in the family’s opera box, then walks over to sit next to her. Newman and the younger Madame de Bellegarde are speaking about his impending marriage when she coquettishly asks Newman to take her to the Latin Quarter “where the students dance with their mistresses (297).”
Newman gave a loud laugh. It seemed to him hardly worth while to be the
wife of the Marquis de Bellegarde, a daughter of the crusaders, heiress of
six (emphasis mine) centuries of glories and traditions to have cent[er]ed one’s
aspirations upon the sight of a couple of hundred young ladies kicking off
young men’s hats. It struck him as a theme for the moralist; but he had no time
to moralise upon it (297–8).
In this scene, James presents a paradox through Newman’s thoughts, a paradox which goes straight to the thematic principle of good vs. evil. A descendent of crusaders, those who fought wars in the name of God, wants to attend an event that suggests debauchery. This makes Newman laugh, and he doesn’t have the “time to moralise upon it.”
Although James uses more sixes than the twelve examples given, these are more closely related to the thematic principle. Two other motifs are important in relationship to the sixes—buildings and staircases. The reader already knows that the Bellegarde house is darkly evil-looking, but the Bellegardes own another house, “Fleurières.” James doesn’t describe Fleurières to the reader, but one would imagine Fleurières, a “flower,” to be pretty. But despite its loveliness, Fleurières has a dark past. Madame de Cintré’s father was apparently killed here by his wife with the help of her older son. Before he dies, the Marquis wrote a letter identifying his murderer, the same letter Newman tossed into the fire at the story’s end. Although the Marquise and her son have been given “renewed” life by Newman’s action, they end up living in seclusion at Fleurières. Compared to the “old dark, wicked house,” Fleurières is a purgatory, a place of suffering. At the last, in trying to keep Newman out of their family, the Bellegardes wind up estranged from their friends—disengaged from society.
Paul Italia in “Henry James’s The American: The House of Bellegarde and the House of Atreus,” compares the fate of the disengaged Bellegarde family to that of Orestes and Electra (364–5). In that comparison, Italia concentrates on the disengagement of the families from society, a “corrupt and self–destructive old order” prevalent in both. At the very least, Italia points out the fate of both families—each a “doomed house.”
Madame de Cintré, too, like Newman, winds up disengaged from society, joining a Carmelite order of nuns in a convent. James destines her to be doomed; after all, she was once married to a sixty year-old man. Madame de Cintré’s “renewed” life will be lived forever in seclusion in a convent located on “Rue d’Enfer, hell-fire street (397).” One can only guess what James intended for Madame de Cintré, given that living a lonely life in a convent on a street named hell-fire conjures up images of an aesthetic life that is Godly or a life with the beast. This linear choice by de Cintré, living on hell-fire street, conflicts with Bachelard’s theory of fire as an “above” space phenomena. Madame de Cintré chooses her own destiny, the “within space” phenomenon, rather than a fate determined by God, the implied “above.”
James’s use of the staircase as a motif, as well as the six, lends itself to Bachelard’s theory of an implied “above.” Twice, Newman is passed a message while ascending the staircase at the Bellegarde house. One message is a warning to Newman that he should hurry up and marry Claire Cintré, “the sooner everything is over the better (244).” Another message is given to Newman—Madame de Cintré is leaving for the Fleurières because she will not be getting married. Since both messages passed to Newman as he climbed the staircase bore bad news, one can assume the association to the “above” phenomena was with the beast rather than God. The messages were perpetrated by the 666, a fake or deceptive heaven.
In The Apocalypse, Joseph Seiss says “the ‘mark’ itself is at once a number and a name (457).” Seiss says six hundred sixty-six is the number, and the mark is that of the beast, nothing different from what is written in Revelation. But there is something important that one should consider. The Apocalypse was written in 1865, while The American is set in 1868. Given that James was an insatiable reader, he likely had read The Apocalypse and may well have been influenced by the numeral six. One can assume, then, that James used the six to symbolize the beast—the Anti–Christ—the deception.
Bachelard, Gaston. Psychoanalysis of Fire. Boston: Beacon, 1968.
HarperCollins Study Bible. 1989.
Italia, Paul G. “Henry James’s The American: The House of Bellegarde and The House of
Atreus.” CLA Journal, 1999 Mar; 42 (3): 364-69. (Journal article)
James, Henry. The American. 1877. New York: Penguin, 1981.
Moore, Harry T. Henry James and His World. New York: Viking, 1974.
Rourke, Constance. “The American.” Henry James’ Major Novels. Eds. Lyall H. Powers,
et al. East Lansing. Michigan State UP.
Seiss, Joseph. The Apocalypse. 1865. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1988.