By Henry James
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Henry James s The Ambassadors (1903) is a novel of penetrating psychological insight, and of profound moral significance. The main character is Lewis Lambert Strether, who has traveled to Europe in the hope of bringing back to America the son of his longtime friend, Mrs. Newsome. Strether has been sent as an envoy, or ambassador, by Mrs. Newsome, to bring back her son, Chadwick, who has apparently become involved in a romantic entanglement with a woman in Paris.
Mrs. Newsome is a wealthy widow, who lives in Woolett, Massachusetts. Mrs. Newsome wants her son Chad to come back to America, to settle down and marry, and to take over the management of the familys manufacturing business.
Strether is a devoted friend, and has a deep personal attachment, to Mrs. Newsome. He realizes that his chances of marrying her depend on whether or not he is successful in his effort to bring Chad back to America.
Strether arrives in England, where he meets a young woman named Maria Gostrey. Strether is fifty-five years old, Miss Gostrey is thirty-five. She acts as a tour-guide for him, and helps him become acquainted with England.
Strether also meets Mr. Waymarsh, an old friend, who is a lawyer from Milrose, Connecticut. They travel to Paris, in order to meet Chad.
Strether visits Chads apartment, which is on the Boulevard Malesherbes. At the apartment, he meets a young artist, John Little Bilham, who is a friend of Chads. Chad is temporarily away from Paris, but returns, and meets Strether, Waymarsh, and Miss Gostrey one evening when they are attending a play at a theater. Strether believes that Chad has changed since the last time that they met in America, and that Chad has improved as a person.
Strether tries to learn the nature of the romantic attachment which keeps Chad in Paris. But Bilham reassures Strether that any attachment which Chad may have in Paris is a virtuous attachment.
Several days later, they all attend a garden party, where Chad introduces Strether to the Countess Marie de Vionnet, and to her daughter, Jeanne. Madame de Vionnet is a beautiful and charming woman, who has been separated for years from her unfaithful husband, a French count.
Strether is unsure whether Chads virtuous attachment is directed to Madame de Vionnet, or to her daughter, Jeanne. Madame de Vionnet is ten years older than Chad, who is twenty-eight. Jeanne is seventeen years old.
Strether decides to delay his attempt to rescue Chad. Strether enjoys life in Paris, and experiences a sense of freedom in Europe that he did not feel in America. He regrets that he has not lived his life more fully.
After several more weeks of waiting for Chads return to America, more ambassadors are sent by Mrs. Newsome to bring Chad home. Mrs. Newsome sends her daughter, Sarah Pocock, and Sarahs husband, James Pocock, and sister-in-law, Mamie Pocock. Mrs. Newsome had intended that Chad marry Mamie Pocock, before Chad had left for Paris.
Madame de Vionnet reveals that her daughter, Jeanne, is to marry a young aristocrat, whose name is Monsieur de Montbron. Strether becomes even more convinced that life in Paris has improved Chad, and advises him to delay returning home to America. Meanwhile, Waymarsh has contacted Mrs. Newsome by letter, and urges Strether to stop meeting with Chads friends, and to tell Chad that he must return home.
Sarah Pocock is very critical of Madame de Vionnet, and denies that Chad has been improved by being away from home. Sarah, Jim, and Mamie finally leave Paris, to make a tour of Europe on their way back to America.
Strether realizes that Mrs. Newsome has decided that he has failed as her ambassador. He has had to choose between bringing Chad back home, and doing what he thinks is best for Chad.
One day, Strether takes a trip to a village outside of Paris, and as he is walking through the village, he happens to see Chad and Madame de Vionnet, sitting together in a boat along the river. It is apparent that Chad and Madame de Vionnet are lovers, and Strether feels embarassed that he has seen them unexpectedly. They have a brief conversation, before he leaves on the train to Paris.
Later, when Chad tells Strether that he is ready to return to America, Strether advises him not to leave Madame de Vionnet.
Strether himself decides to return to America, and meets with Maria Gostrey before leaving. She has become attracted to him, but Strether rejects her offer to devote her life to him.
Strether is determined that he will derive no personal gain from his mission as ambassador. He has decided that his mission will be unselfish, and will be motivated only by trying to help others.
His moral integrity does not allow him to take advantage of others for his own personal gain. This is why he has tried to do what he thought was best for Chad, by advising Chad to stay in Paris, rather than persuading him to return home, even though Chads return home would have won favor for both of them from Mrs. Newsome.
Strether’s scrupulousness is like a sacred rage. And this is why he feels that he cannot accept the personal gain that he would receive from a continued relationship with Miss Gostrey.
Jamess development of the plot and action of the novel is very slow and detailed. The style of prose in the novel is extremely complex, and the dialogue of the characters is indirect and ambiguous. Every conversation has vague implications and hidden meanings. Questions which are asked by the characters are never answered directly. All of the characters are tactful and discreet in word and action.
Strether has been sent to Paris to find out about Chads personal life, but Strether is very reluctant to pry into Chads personal life. It is this sense of tact and discretion that makes Strether reluctant to discover the exact nature of the relationship between Chad and Madame de Vionnet.
Madame de Vionnet sees that Strether is not really committed to bringing Chad back to America, and takes advantage of this fact. She sees that Strether has redefined his mission, and that he is trying to find out what is best for Chad. She persuades Strether to try to help her, in order to show that she has had a good influence on Chad.
Thus, James draws attention to the importance of manners and civility. The novel exhibits a unique and remarkable moral sensibility. Strethers concern and respect for others prevents him from taking advantage of others for his own personal gain.
Another theme of the novel is the importance of being faithful to personal conscience. Strether decides that he must do what is best for Chad, even if this means that he himself will lose favor with Mrs. Newsome. Strether’s faithfulness to personal conscience, even at the risk of his own disadvantage, makes him an outstanding protagonist.
The Ambassadors offers a perceptive examination of the nature of personal conscience and of moral integrity. The novel describes the contrast between engagement and detachment, between moral commitment and moral relativism, beween personal confrontation and personal diplomacy. The novel also portrays the contrast between innocence and experience, between naiveté and sophistication, between provincial society and world society. Alex Scott, http://www.angelfire.com
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