Strether’s experiences, observations, thoughts, and reflections essentially compose The Ambassadors. Even though the novel is not told in Strether’s voice, his point of view fills the work and he is its central consciousness. Each event gets filtered through Strether’s eyes and mind. Similarly, every comment uttered by the narrator reflects Strether’s impressions and biases. For these reasons, Strether is the most important character in the novel. But although Strether appears in every facet of the story, he has very little influence over the other characters. He tries, often nobly, to motivate the characters, as when he attempts to convince Sarah Pocock of Madame de Vionnet’s worthiness or when he tells Chad that he should remain in Europe. Ultimately, however, Strether fails to spur the others to act or behave as he wants them to. In the end, Strether himself changes the most, as the world he observes influences and affects him.
Over the course of The Ambassadors, Strether transforms from a close-minded puritan from a small town in the United States to a broad-minded man with a European, cosmopolitan outlook. As the novel begins, Strether is unable to enjoy the experience of his own life and cannot act confidently of his own volition. He arrives in Paris ready to blindly follow Mrs. Newsome’s orders. He finds himself afraid to diverge from this burdensome task in any small way. Throughout his time in Europe, however, Strether changes greatly. His conversations with Miss Gostrey teach him to see the world in a European way. Gradually he gains confidence, learns to trust his own judgment, and realizes that his priorities have been wrong. Strether leaves Europe not because he has renounced the freedom and openness he discovered there. Rather, Strether leaves because he believes himself too old and too set in his ways to give up the only life he has ever known—the small-town life of Woollett, Massachusetts. Strether’s greatest disappointment is his failure to convince Chad to stay in Europe. Chad, however, has an irreversible and inestimable influence on Strether, who will never see the world, and especially not Woollett, Massachusetts, the same again.
Madame de Vionnet is the closest the novel gets to a villain. She serves as a type of femme fatale for Strether: a charming, beautiful but somewhat dangerous woman. Like Strether, readers do not learn of her true nature until the end of the novel, due, in part, to Chad’s intelligent, albeit deceitful, maneuvering. Chad and little Bilham reassure Strether of the virtuous nature of the relationship between Madame de Vionnet and Chad. By the time Strether realizes that she is the “bad woman” from whom he was sent to take Chad, Strether has become convinced of her ultimate virtue. Madame de Vionnet’s complicity in the deceit reveals her selfishness. She is not evil, but she willingly sacrifices Strether’s future happiness to keep Chad near her. Later, when Strether realizes that he has been duped, he still fights to keep Chad with her, because he has fallen in love with Madame de Vionnet himself. In the end, Strether loses his standing in the Woollett community, as well as his engagement to Mrs. Newsome, as a result of his love for, and defense of, Madame de Vionnet. But even though he loves her, Strether refuses her offer to remain in Paris as her companion at the end of the novel. By deciding to return to Woollett, Strether salvages his integrity by refusing to succumb to her deceit.
Henry James describes the character of Miss Gostrey as the “reader’s friend” in the preface to the New York edition of The Ambassadors. In the plot of the novel, of course, she is Strether’s friend. Her unique role as confidant helps Strether to confront and analyze his experiences after the events have already occurred and his first impressions have already been solidified. Readers too must decode and analyze Strether’s experiences to derive meaning from The Ambassadors. Helping Strether do this work also lets Miss Gostrey help the reader confront and analyze. In this way, Miss Gostrey offers invaluable help to both Strether and the reader. When Strether first arrives in Paris, Miss Gostrey clarifies his confusion about Chad’s world and teaches him to overcome his American bias. Likewise, she sees through the complexities of each situation and distills it down to an explicit analysis that both Strether and the reader can easily digest. Later, as Strether gains a better grasp of Europe, Miss Gostrey serves as a sounding board for his new ideas. Her presence allows the reader to revisit each episode of the novel and, as a consequence, to take note of Strether’s changing personality. Therefore, Miss Gostrey is both a central character and an essential narrative tool in The Ambassadors.
If Madame de Vionnet is the villain of The Ambassadors, Chad Newsome is the novel’s antagonist, or the character who opposes the protagonist, Strether. Though Chad takes no explicit action against Strether, his deception initially allows Strether to mistake Madame de Vionnet for a simple friend and virtuous influence. Had Chad not asked little Bilham to act on his behalf, and had Bilham not lied to Strether about the context of Chad’s relationship, Strether’s relationship with Mrs. Newsome may have remained intact and his future in Woollett secure. However, such events would not have necessarily given the novel a better outcome. Strether actually learns more through Chad’s deceit than he could ever have possibly learned through a successful mission and subsequent marriage to Mrs. Newsome. Had Chad not tricked him, Strether may never have realized his own truth about Europe. Thus, Chad is a complicated antagonist: he has neither a purely evil nor a purely good effect on the outcome of the novel.