Ambassadors," by Henry James. "The Ambassadors" first appeared in 1903, as a serial in "The North American Review." It appeared in book form a year later.
STRETHER'S EDUCATION IN PARIS
Lambert Strether is an "ambassador" from Puritanical Woollett, Massachusetts, who travels to Paris to learn of the relationship between young Chad Newsome and an unknown woman. Chad's mother, Mrs. Newsome, has commissioned him to find out more about her son in the wild Paris scene. Mrs. Newsome represents the highly strict mores of New England, and Chad, the new freedom of Paris.
Mrs. Newsome wants her son to come home, to take over his business opportunities and find a respectable marriage: indeed, "in triumph as a kind of wedding present to mother." Here begin mixed motives, for Mrs. Newsome has indicated that she will express her gratitude by marrying Strether if he succeeds. There will be financial stability for all involved, and Strether ignores the fact that he is not a fiance -- he is an employee.
Strether is the main character in "The Ambassadors," and the character discussed. We have several questions to answer about Strether's time in Paris, including: What does Strether learn in Paris? How does he learn it? From whom does he learn it? And what effect does what he learns have on him?
Strether learns much about himself and his background as he travels through Paris. He says early on, during his stay in London things "had struck him as requiring so many explanations.... But it was at present as if he had either soared above or sunk below them, he couldn't tell which; he could somehow think of none that didn't seem to leave the appearance of collapse and cynicism easier for him than lucidity" (James).
Paris for him is new, full of bright people (almost all of them are Americans), who have new ideas and thoughts. He meets bohemian sculptors like Gloriani, "bad women," like Madame de Vionnet and other who begin to influence his thoughts about mores and lifestyle.
He is among people who "dine before the theatre," as he does with Miss Gostrey. He constantly compares her to Mrs. Newsome in his mind, and while he does not admit it then, Mrs. Newsome does not come out ahead. "Miss Gostrey had dined with him at his hotel, face-to-face over a small table on which the lighted candles had rose-coloured shades; and the rose-coloured shades and the small table and the soft fragrance of the lady -- had anything to his mere sense ever been so soft? -- were so many touches in he scarce knew what positive high picture" (James).
In comparison, he remembers never dining with Mrs. Newsome, in fact, never dining with any young woman before he was married. He also remembers Mrs. Newsome as anything but "rosy." She wears "handsome" dresses, (read conservative), while Miss Gostrey wears dresses that are "cut down" over her shoulders.
This entire scene sets the stage for Srether's transformation. Miss Gostrey, who clearly loves him, is the "questionable" woman to him, new, and exciting. She thinks Madame de Vionnet is "Base, venal -- out of the streets." Compared to Mrs. Newsome, that is just what Miss Gostrey is, a little exciting, and even "naughty," if compared to Victorian New England woman.
In Paris, he learns to feel freer than he has ever felt before. He no longer has the tight bonds of straight-laced Massachusetts so tight around him, and he can learn from the people he meets in Paris, and learn from their lifestyles. Paris is a "vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked" (James).
Throughout the book, he often "soars above or sinks below," his feelings and emotions are in tumult because there is so much around him that is different, new, and exciting. At one point he says, "I'm extremely wonderful just now. I dare say in fact I'm quite fantastic, and I shouldn't be at all surprised if I were mad" (James).
At another point he remarks to Chad: "It wasn't for you they came out, but for me. It wasn't to see for themselves what you're doing, but what I'm doing" (James). It is here that he realizes what the trip has been about all along. He thought all along it was about Chad, and saving him, but in reality, it has been about his own salvation. He has learned there is more to the world than the rigid values of Victorian New England.
Strether learns about himself through the other characters in the book, especially Chad, who he pretty much reveres until he discovers what he had really known all along, that Chad and Madame de Vionnet are lovers. He never put a name to their relationship throughout the novel, he was too afraid to admit that instead of "saving" Chad, he was in no need of saving. "Having committed himself completely to the idea of social beauty, Strether faces the painful truth that it is sustained by people who are human beings, with all the vulgar weaknesses of human beings." (James).
Chad is the younger of the two men, and yet Strether seems younger, by his actions, and by his naivete. Chad is having an affair with a married older woman, something Strether would never do, and could not even give it a name, which would make it real. After the garden party, Chad and Strether have early morning coffee, and the balance seems to shift between them. "Chad shook his head with the slow amenity that was one of his ways of conveying that there was time for everything. 'I have no secret -- though I may have secrets! I haven't at any rate that one. We're not engaged. No'" (James). Strether is extremely eager to meet Madame de Vionnet, and Chad recognizes it, and plays upon his eagerness. Chad becomes a "man of the world" to Strether, and sets the stage for Strether to learn what he needs to learn from Chad.
Strether often visits Notre Dame, often for "its beneficent action on his nerves." One day he encounters Madame de Vionnet there. He is beginning to fall in love with her himself, and the scene at Notre Dame establishes this. He sees her from a distance, and does not recognize her at first. "She wasn't prostrate -- not in any degree bowed, but she was strangely fixed, and her prolonged immobility showed her, while he passed, and paused, as wholly given up to the need, whatever it was, that had brought her there. She only sat and gazed before her, as he himself often sat; but she had placed herself, as he never did, within the focus of the shrine, and she had lost herself, he could easily see, as he would only have liked to do" (James).
She says she has a great fondness for churches, and expects to end her days there. She also tells him that she is happy he also has a fondness for them, and there is a common bond.
The sense he had had before, the sense he had had repeatedly, the sense that the situation was running away with him, had never been so sharp as now; and all the more that he could perfectly put his finger on the moment it had taken the bit in its teeth" (James).
Of course, we know that he will not end up with Madame de Vionnet, any more than he will end up with Miss Gostrey, or Mrs. Newsome. The entire scene is an awakening of Strether as a man, and yet, in the end, he will still be alone. At least he has learned more about women, and…