Henry James’s Is Published Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Ambassadors, the first and greatest of Henry James’s three late novels that deal with international themes, represented the climax of James’s efforts at the subtle dissection of thought processes.

Summary of Event

By the time of the publication of The Ambassadors in 1903, Henry James had long been recognized as one of the premier American writers. However, over the years his readership had been dwindling to a select coterie, with the general public growing less inclined to support his work. Part of the reason for this disfavor was that his writing had grown increasingly intellectually challenging, but James had also lost popularity because he was unwilling to stay with the tried-and-true themes that had brought him initial success. In early novels such as The American (1876-1877) and The Portrait of a Lady Portrait of a Lady, The (James, H.) (1880-1881), which were both popular and critical triumphs, he had described naïve, feeling Americans whose hearts were broken by scheming or class-prejudiced Europeans. When James resolutely turned to new themes, as in The Bostonians (1885-1886), which satirized Boston reformist and spiritualist circles, he began losing his audience. Ambassadors, The (James, H.) [kw]Henry James’s The Ambassadors Is Published (Nov., 1903)[Henry Jamess The Ambassadors Is Published (Nov., 1903)] [kw]Published, Henry James’s The Ambassadors Is (Nov., 1903) [kw]James’s The Ambassadors Is Published, Henry (Nov., 1903)[Jamess The Ambassadors Is Published, Henry (Nov., 1903)] [kw]Ambassadors Is Published, Henry James’s The (Nov., 1903) Ambassadors, The (James, H.) [g]United States;Nov., 1903: Henry James’s The Ambassadors Is Published[00820] [c]Literature;Nov., 1903: Henry James’s The Ambassadors Is Published[00820] James, Henry Howells, William Dean

An attempt to write for the British stage, lasting from 1890 to 1895, was equally unsatisfactory. One play, Guy Domville Guy Domville (James, H.) (1895), was actually booed off the stage. After this signal theatrical failure, James moved from London, where he had been living, to the English countryside and returned to composing short stories and novels. He began to pour out a remarkable series of supernatural stories, such as The Turn of the Screw Turn of the Screw, The (James, H.) (1898), which experimented with point of view and the rendering of delicate mental nuances. In 1900, incorporating these innovations into a longer work, he wrote a projected plan for The Ambassadors.

The reaction of the staff of Harper’s Magazine, to which James submitted his plan in hopes that the book would be accepted for serialization, was a harbinger of the notice the novel would receive from the general public. The Harper’s reader advised against acceptance, stating, “It does not promise a popular novel. The tissues of it are too subtly fine for general appreciation.” James’s friend William Dean Howells, literary consultant to North American Review, helped James’s serial to publication in that journal, which was more high-toned but less widely read than Harper’s, in its twelve issues of 1903. The book was published the same year and, as could have been expected, did not take the world by storm. It did, however, intensely interest discerning reviewers, who noted James’s brilliant joining of the old and the new.

An “old” component of the novel was James’s international theme of the contrasting manners of Europeans and Americans, a theme he had handled brilliantly in his earliest novels and to which he returned with increased awareness. Again a naïve American, here Chad Newsome, is made the prey of a worldly European, here Madame de Vionnet, although the moral and social issues are more complex than they had been in James’s earlier treatments. The American turns out to be less naïve and the European less jaded than each at first appears.

New to the novel was James’s use of literary techniques he had been working up mainly in shorter fiction. First among these techniques was James’s complex employment of a single, constricted point of view from which to tell the story. The viewpoint is not Chad’s but that of a man, Lambert Strether, who is sent by Chad’s mother to extricate her son from the clutches of a European temptress. Before Strether can accomplish his mission, he must determine how deeply Chad is involved. Situated in Strether’s perspective, the reader undergoes with him the task of trying to unravel highly veiled appearances. Strether is tremendously sensitive, and so the presentation of his consciousness entails the drawing of superfine distinctions. Such nicety, a Proustian sensitivity to delicate gradations of thought and human relationships, is a second major new element of James’s late style.

The Ambassadors was to be the first in a trilogy of novels of similar themes and style that represent the crowning glories of James’s career. Each deals with the clashing lifestyles and philosophical outlooks of Americans and Europeans, each involves the careful investigation of moral questions, and each is told with a heightened awareness of the mind’s workings. The next book, The Wings of the Dove, Wings of the Dove, The (James, H.) which was published in 1902 but was written after The Ambassadors, concerns a young American heiress, suffering from a fatal disease, whom an impoverished Londoner woos in hopes of inheriting her fortune. The last book in the series, The Golden Bowl (1904), centers on the suspected infidelity of an American heiress’s Italian husband. As in The Ambassadors, the rather uneventful plots of the novels become the basis of sometimes excruciating, often compelling explorations of human thought and motivation.

Where these two novels depart from The Ambassadors is in their treatment of point of view; The Ambassadors is told exclusively from Strether’s viewpoint, whereas the latter novels are constructed from the intersecting viewpoints of a handful of extremely articulate characters. In one sense, then, these last two texts improve on the style of the first, in that the reader is allowed a more rounded view of the stories’ situations as they are surveyed by multiple eyes. In another sense, however, as some critics have noted, the technique makes for a diffuseness not found in the more concentrated presentation of The Ambassadors. Of the three novels, only the first appeared as a serial; this fact, along with the book’s use of a single consciousness to filter the action, doubtless contributed to its tightness of construction.

All three books exhibit an interesting interplay of plot and observation, with a sordid and often tragic story forming a powerful contrast to the delicate sensibilities of the embroiled characters. The Ambassadors, although a model for the other final masterpieces in the James canon, stands out in its combination of these elements to create suspense and in the economy of means used to achieve its effects.


The mannered, highly personal, almost idiosyncratic prose style of The Ambassadors was not one that another author would have been likely to imitate. Yet the focus on a detailed examination of the subjective states of a small collection of characters and the presentation of the story from the perspective of a single, limited participant, as in The Ambassadors, were to become hallmarks of much modern fiction. James’s one novel, of course, was not responsible for the sea change that moved the twentieth century novel away from the broader canvas and omniscient narration characteristic of its nineteenth century predecessor. However, The Ambassadors was one of a number of novels of the time that shaped this change. Further, James’s handling of the theme of Americans abroad in The Ambassadors foreshadowed and doubtless influenced the work of many post-World War I American writers.

When James moved to southern England in 1895, he settled in an area where a number of other writers, including other American expatriates, were or would soon be living. Three of these writers, Stephen Crane, Crane, Stephen Joseph Conrad, Conrad, Joseph and Ford Madox Ford, exerted influence on James and on one another (although Crane died before The Ambassadors was published). More important, each, along with James, was instrumental in moving the craft of fiction in a subjective direction. Crane, for example, sharing James’s interest in the refinements of psychology, composed a war novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), that paid more attention to the depiction of the soldier-hero’s mental states than to recording valiant deeds. Sharing James’s use of a restricted point of view, Conrad presented the narrative of Lord Jim Lord Jim (Conrad) (1900) not only by way of the unreliable remembrance of the central character, who is the source of the tale, but also through a second, possibly faulty, narrator who retells the first character’s tale. These and other writers of the group, with James as the greatest virtuoso of them all, helped to shrink (in scope) and deepen (in psychological insight) the purview of the novel.

A glance at the work of such great modern authors as Virginia Woolf, Woolf, Virginia James Joyce, Joyce, James and William Faulkner Faulkner, William reveals how the lines set down by James and related writers were followed. Of the three, Woolf is the closest to James in technique. In her To the Lighthouse (1927), she created a work that, although much more concrete and tied to everyday life than The Ambassadors, was remarkably similar in its close scrutiny of the flittings of consciousness over a short period of time among a compact group. Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) had, as one of its many innovations, the representation of the “stream of consciousness,” Stream-of-consciousness technique[Stream of consciousness] that is, the moment-to-moment flux of thought in the minds of leading characters. Joyce’s work took the modern novel further into the exploration of psychic minutiae than even James had contemplated. Faulkner, taking much from Joyce, in The Sound and the Fury Sound and the Fury, The (Faulkner) (1929) moved the stream-of-consciousness technique into new areas of abnormal psychology by examining such things as the minds of a mentally retarded character and of a youth on the verge of suicide. In exploring these minds, too, Faulkner limited the reader’s view to what these flawed consciousnesses perceived. The Ambassadors had been a major precedent for the employment of the limited point of view, but James had used the technique to present the perspective of a sensitive, intelligent character; Faulkner used the method, in one case, to render, literally, the mind of an idiot.

James’s novel also pioneered in the presentation of American characters in Europe. By examining Americans in foreign lands, James was able to bring out the contrasting traits of personality developed in the Old and New Worlds. It is true that a number of earlier writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, had studied Americans in Europe, but the theme had always held a decidedly minor place in American letters. Not only did The Ambassadors lift the handling of this material to a new level of excellence, making it a subject to be reckoned with, but the book also problematized conventional literary stereotypes. James did not simply compare honest Americans to dissembling Europeans; rather, he showed that each had characteristics of the other. Later writers from the United States would go even further and reverse the traditional images altogether. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hemingway, Ernest The Sun Also Rises Sun Also Rises, The (Hemingway) (1926), for example, the American expatriate war veterans are the ones who have seen it all and are wearied with life, whereas many European characters still have the zest for living that once would have been attributed to Americans. For Hemingway and other American writers such as Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller, the American experience could be fathomed fully only through the use of European life as a benchmark. In this, such writers were upholding a way of looking at matters that had been most forcefully presented by James.

Literary influences proceed in various manners. The most superficial type manifests itself when one author imitates another whose prose and perspective seem congenial; Hemingway, for example, imitated Sherwood Anderson in this way at first. A more profound type of influence appears when one author sets the terms of ongoing literary discourse. This James did with The Ambassadors, so that many of his successors, although not touched by his prose style or his opinions on the world, felt obliged to take up his compositional methods and his major themes. Ambassadors, The (James, H.)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blackmur, R. P. Studies in Henry James. Edited by Veronica A. Makowsky. New York: New Directions, 1983. An important collection of essays and prefaces to James’s novels by a “New Critic” who is especially interested in a number of philosophical problems raised by James’s late novels. He questions how, for example, The Ambassadors can be written in such an abstract, formal style and yet at the same time approach so near to capturing the real flavor of life. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edel, Leon. Henry James: The Treacherous Years, 1895-1901. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1969.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Henry James, the Master: 1901-1916. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1972. These books are the last two in Edel’s five-volume biography. The fourth volume covers James’s first work on The Ambassadors, and the fifth discusses the novel’s writing, serialization, and publication as a book. Gives a sense of James’s numerous friendships and devotion to craft. Notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hocks, Richard A.“The Ambassadors”: Consciousness, Culture, Poetry. Boston: Twayne, 1997. A detailed examination of the novel’s literary, sociocultural, and philosophical elements. Explores the literary theories and working principles of art and consciousness that drove James’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holland, Laurence B. The Expense of Vision: Essays on the Craft of Henry James. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. Both an examination of the themes of James’s novels and a presentation of the intellectual climate in which James worked. Looks into the complicated but discreet use of parallelism used to structure The Ambassadors. Includes appendix and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, Henry. The Ambassadors. Edited by S. P. Rosenbaum. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. Along with the text of the novel, this edition contains extracts from letters James wrote about his work, the novel’s plan, and essays from leading critics, including F. R. Leavis, E. M. Forster, and Ian Watt. Annotated, with bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and Practice of Fiction. Edited by William Veeder and Susan M. Griffin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Includes James’s appreciations of contemporary authors, his prefaces to the New York editions of his novels, including The Ambassadors, and his essays on fiction. Chief among the latter is “The Art of Fiction,” in which James lays down his premises, involving both realism and experimentation, for judging literature. Includes index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Complete Notebooks of Henry James. Edited by Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Contains James’s notebooks and diaries as well as his notes to publishers. Includes his first elaborate sketching out of the story and themes of The Ambassadors and the précis of the book that he sent to Harper’s in hope of having the novel serialized.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krook, Dorothea. Henry James’s “The Ambassadors”: A Critical Study. New York: AMS Press, 1996. A useful introductory guide to the novel, focusing particularly on the role of consciousness in James’s narrative approach.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matthiessen, F. O. Henry James: The Major Phase. New York: Oxford University Press, 1944. Offers a sensitive assessment of James’s later novels. Discussion of The Ambassadors focuses especially on James’s use of a single character as a center of consciousness. Also explores Strether’s relation to New England Puritanism. Includes appendix and index.

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Categories: History