Henry James, “The Ambassadors”

1901

The Ambassadors (originally serialized) describes the trip of one Lambert Strether, first to England, then to Paris, to collect Chad Newsome, the wayward son of Strether’s fiancee. In the process, he learns to “take things as they come” in the European way, becomes close friends with Maria Gostrey (who basically proposes at the end of the novel), finds himself infatuated with Mme. (Marie) de Vionnet (Chad’s lover), acknowledges that Chad is not lost but has changed for the better, disagrees with his firmly American friend Waymarsh on the value of the European experience, and forgoes his engagement to Mrs. Newsome.

The novel, told in the third person free indirect discourse typical of James, is limited to Strether’s point of view and posits his growth as a progress of perspective – of seeing. At first, Strether arrives in Europe having pre-judged the situation with Chad, and he is defined by his obsession with time and his watch. As R.W. Stallman says, “He is addicted to watching the clock lest he miss the train, and that is why he has always missed it” 377. As the novel progresses, images of sight proliferate, so that in the final key scene of his refusal of Maria Gostrey, Maria says “I see. So that as she’s different for you -” and he interrupts with “She’s the same… But I do what I didn’t before – I see her” 373. Thus his reason for leaving Mrs. Newsome is one of newfound sight, but so is his reason for refusing Maria herself – he desires “to be right,” and Maria tells him, “It isn’t so much your being right – it’s your horrible sharp eye for what makes it so” 375. In this sense, it is Strether’s very ability to discern at the end of the novel that makes him so much more attractive than the equivocating, prejudging man of someone else’s “vision” who we meet asking himself his “first question” as the novel begins 5.

Eventually, the development of hearing, and especially seeing, extends to the level of touch (tact, metaphorically) and taste (metaphorically as well). Thus, as Strether develops his “closer senses,” in Sobchack’s terms, he strangely develops the correspondingly abstract or metaphorical senses that give him the very je ne sais quoi that he is unable to discern or explain in the Europeanized Americans at the start of The Ambassadors. In his love for Marie de Vionnet, Chad explains near the novel’s close that “She has never for a moment yet bored me – never been wanting, as the cleverest women sometimes are, in tact. She has never talked about her tact” 367. He sees an echo of this in Maria Gostrey, it seems, when he wonders if anything will be “so good as this place at this moment… so good as what you make of everything you touch” 374. (The division of touch and tact reminds me a lot of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, where the characters rarely touch, but are obsessed with ideas of tact – as manners, but also as maneuvers.)

Marie de Vionnet and Maria Gostrey, with their similar names, seem to double for each other, as to Mme. and Mlle. de Vionnet (it takes Strether most of the book to look past his own infatuation with the mother and realize firmly that it is she, not Jeanne, with whom Chad is having an affair). Sarah and Mami Pocock also double for each other in a way. Ultimately, however, Strether is left with a sense of the singular irreplaceability of the individual – he wants his “last word of all” to Chad to be: “You’ll be a brute, you know – you’ll be guilty of the last infamy – if you ever forsake her” 364. Strether finally realizes the extent to which Marie has ‘made’ Chad into what he is – a likable and genteel man with a bright future ahead of him, who fears Chad will leave her for the cushy business job at home in America. Though it is unclear what Chad ultimately does, the novel leans, bitterly, toward the latter conclusion. E.M. Forster disliked it for this “hourglass” structure, by which Chad and Strether essentially switch places, but little else occurs.

 

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