by Michaela Bronstein
The Ambassadors was the first written (1900–1901), but second published (1903), of the three major works with which Henry James concluded his career as a novelist. Like The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, it treats Americans abroad in Europe, and like those novels it relies on careful choice of a focalized third-person point-of-view. James himself listed it, with Portrait of a Lady (1881), as “the most proportioned of his productions,” , and these two novels are distinguished by their relatively rigorous adherence to the perspectives of single characters: Isabel Archer and Lambert Strether.
The Ambassadors marks James’s return to the “international theme” which had been so prominent in his earlier works like Roderick Hudson, The American, and Portrait; notably, in the 1880s and 1890s he had departed from this topic, writing novels that focus on either America (The Bostonians) or Europe (The Princess Casamassima, The Tragic Muse, What Maisie Knew) without juxtaposing the continents. In the 1890s his ill-fated attempt to write plays involved primarily English subjects. The Ambassadors is in some senses a return to the scene of James’s first triumph as a novelist.
Somewhat lighter and more humorous in tone than Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors has very little overt plotting: Lambert Strether, a middle-aged American man and a widower, is sent by his fiance, the widowed and wealthy Mrs. Newsome, to retrieve her son, Chad, from Paris, where she believes him to be having an affair with a scandalous woman. Strether, who had been to Europe once many years before as a young man and always meant to return, goes to Europe, and meets Chad and several other members of his circle. Eventually, Strether returns; Chad does not. The novel is the story of Strether’s evolving consciousness of Chad’s situation and of the differences between Woollett, his hometown in Massachusetts, and Paris. Strether takes a much smaller part in the external plot than any other major James protagonist, but the importance of the specifically interior drama is correspondingly increased.
At the end of the novel, Maria Gostrey, an American permanently settled abroad, tells Strether that he’s gathered “wonderful impressions” out of his trip. Strether’s journey is not just a touristic assembly of impressions about Paris; it is also a broader new knowledge of the different types of impressions available to him. At the beginning of the novel, he fully embraces the perspective of Woollett, seeing all the characters in archetypes: the woman Chad is with is “base, venal—out of the streets”; Chad is “obstinate” and a “wretched boy.” (XXI.55) Such broad, categorizing opinions are portrayed as typical of the New England outlook: Sarah Pocock, Chad’s sister, arrives in Europe sometime after Strether and pronounces “I know Paris,” (XXII.91) and we are meant to understand that she does not know Paris at all, and that to think you can know any person, let alone city, fully is perhaps a little presumptuous.
Yet the novel does not merely rebuke American certainty; it also shows the limitations of Parisian flexibility and openness to impressions. The novel is full of instances, in fact, that seem to set up a reading of the plot that would suggest, in fact, that it is Europe that seems most problematic: Strether discovers very late in the novel that Chad’s relationship with Marie de Vionnet, who is separated from her husband, is in fact sexual; he is also surprised that Marie’s daughter Jeanne is to be married to a man she scarcely knows. Yet the discovery of the sexual affair does not lead Strether to any negative judgment of Chad and Marie. His decision to go back to America, rather than following from any such disapproval, is deliberately ambiguous in import.
James said in the Preface to the novel that the major theme was revealed in Strether’s outburst to Little Bilham in the garden of the sculptor Gloriani, in which he encourages the younger man to take advantage of his youth: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” Strether advocates seeking to preserve the “illusion of freedom” in the face of the pressures to fit into the roles granted by society. (XXI.217-218) This is not a demand for indiscriminate rebellion, but a suggestion to refuse to take social dictates — American or European — for granted. Chad is supposed to take up a position in charge of his family’s manufacturing business; Strether is supposed to obtain Chad, and then marry Mrs. Newsome. These American expectations, the novel suggests, limit the possibilities available to their characters; similarly, however, the European tendency to refuse any judgment of actions leads to some choices with which Strether is not at ease; for instance, the marriage of Jeanne, and Chad’s likely future abandonment of Marie. The novel is not just about living as much as possible; it is also about Strether learning from all that variety of experience to choose what aspects of different cultures and personal influences are important to him.
The titular reference to “ambassadors” refers, most obviously, to Strether’s task as an appointed representative for Mrs. Newsome, and to Sarah Pocock’s later succession to that role. But this role is highly unstable, and at various points in the novel Strether also acts as an advocate for Marie de Vionnet. Ultimately, Strether’s choice to return to America reflects his realization that living his own life requires not being an ambassador for anyone else.
As with most of James’s novels, some debate about the relative merits of the first published form and the New York Edition revisions has occurred, along the usual lines of partisans of the earlier version defending its more generous punctuation and slightly more explicit and simple phrasings; those who prefer the New York Edition enjoy James’s final intentions, and its more elaborate metaphorical language. However, a more important issue specific to The Ambassadors relates to the placement of chapters 28 and 29. One of these chapters was not in the original serial publication; in the first English edition (published by Methuen) it was placed before the original chapter 28; in the first American edition (Harper) it was placed after, and in the New York Edition James kept the American ordering. Despite James’s apparent preference for the American ordering, this creates some apparent chronological inconsistency in the plot of the novel, and modern editions may still follow either order.
An online text of The Ambassadors is here.