Places: The Ambassadors

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1903

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: c. 1900

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*England

*England. Ambassadors, TheThe book opens at Chester, England, where Strether–Mrs. Newsome’s “ambassador”–arriving from Liverpool to meet his friend Waymarsh, has a first encounter with Maria Gostrey, who will become his confidant. This brief English scene constitutes a prologue that strikes the theme of Europe–the Europe of old houses and crooked streets which was being stamped upon American imaginations by Henry James’s fellow expatriate, painter James Whistler. London launches Strether’s eager growth through first impressions, but Paris will complete it.

*Paris

*Paris. France’s capital, the centerpiece of the novel, is a jewel-like city. The initiation of Strether into a Parisian mode of life so different from that of his native Woollett leads him to symbolic gambols through winding passages of darkness and light to a realization, as James put it in his preface, of “more things than had been dreamed of in the philosophy of Woollett.” Metaphorically, then, Paris rules Strether’s discriminations and attitudes, the only ones to which the reader is privy. At no time does Strether take on his mission with fervor. As the “ambassador” partakes of Paris’s enchantments–its natives, streets, and especially its gardens–he becomes subtly aware of how much the city’s eternal spring has broadened Chad Newhouse, his charge, and now he himself. For a time, Strether forgets Woollett and all he has left behind, as his eyes scan the picture of Paris, the stir and shimmer of life in the rue de Rivoli and the gardens of the Tuileries. It is to these scenic frames, and the ways in which they envelope Parisians like tableaux, that he succumbs. In fact, Paris defines Strether’s perceptions of character.

Behind Paris, interpreting it for Chad, is the adorable and exalted figure of Madame Marie de Vionnet. Strether’s gradual awareness that the French countess and Chad are lovers–hence by all rights she should be the archenemy of all Woollett stands for–is tempered by the powerful sense that she has been largely responsible for the finer person Chad has become. James is careful to situate Strether’s major encounters with her at places that convey a special ambience. He first meets Madame de Vionnet among distinguished company in the sculptor Gloriani’s old garden. He sees her next in the stillness of her house among old possessions that bespeak for him “her rare unlikeness” to any woman he has met in America. Finally, he has a sudden–and accidental–revelation of her intimate link to Chad in the French countryside, “a land of fancy for him–background of fiction, the medium of art.”

Thus does Henry James emphasize Strether’s response to place–the pictorial and associational that are so lacking in Woollett. He comes to accept as a matter of course that he is “mixed up with the typical tale of Paris.” This final–this Paris-induced reading of his dilemma–amounts to an identification of himself with the Parisians.

Woollett

Woollett. Massachusetts town from which Strether comes. No scenes are set in Woollett, but its presence even in absence looms like a shadow. In the end it will win its battle with Paris. In a sense, the roles of Paris and Madame de Vionnet are identical. James created her as inseparable from the old city. Every touchstone in her demeanor is related to Strether’s impression of her house, where each chair and cabinet is suggestive of the history of the city and of France. With the arrival from Woollett of a second batch of “ambassadors,” including Mamie, the girl Chad will marry, both the city and its stunning embodiment falter. The New–Woollett and the Newsomes–will triumph over the old–Paris, Marie de Vionnet, and the convert from the new to the old, Lambert Strether. She bows to Chad’s Parisian infatuation; he bows to his own rectitude in denying for himself both Woollett and Paris. He cannot marry Mrs. Newsome and he will not pursue his love for the Frenchwoman.

Suggested ReadingsBell, Millicent. Meaning in Henry James. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. Examines James’s novels in reference to narrative theory. Analysis of The Ambassadors focuses on narrative techniques and shows the relationship between narrative and meaning.Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. A classic biography. Places The Ambassadors in the context of James’s biography, showing its place in James’s life and in his stylistic development. Good for those interested in biographical criticism.Fussel, Edwin Sill. The French Side of Henry James. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. A good analysis of James’s novels set wholly or partly in France. Discussion of The Ambassadors shows the importance of place to the theme in James’s work. Explains specific French concepts and images in the novel.Griffin, Susan M. “The Selfish Eye: Strether’s Principles of Psychology.” In On Henry James: The Best from American Literature, edited by Louis J. Budd and Edwin H. Cady. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990.Grover, Philip. Henry James and the French Novel. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1973. Introduces the French portion of the James canon. Traces the influence of French Impressionism and other French elements on The Ambassadors.Hocks, Richard A. Henry James and Pragmatistic Thought. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1974.McElderry, Bruce R., Jr. Henry James. New York: Twayne, 1965.Wagenknecht, Edward. The Novels of Henry James. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. Excellent basic study of James’s novels. The chapter on The Ambassadors presents an enlightening reading of the novel and places it at the highest point of James’s achievement.Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. Language and Knowledge in the Late Novels of Henry James. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Categories: Places