“That’s what I mean by his chance. . . . And to see that he does not miss it is, in a word, what I’ve come out for.”
She let it all sink in. “What you’ve come out for then is simply to render him an immense service.”
Well, poor Strether was willing to take it so. “Ah if you like.”
This quotation comes at the end of the opening of Book Second. Here, Strether attempts to explain to Miss Gostrey the full extent of his involvement with Chad in Paris. Miss Gostrey relates to Strether in a knowing way, appearing to understand more about Strether’s mission than Strether himself does. In addition, Miss Gostrey seems able to foresee the true importance of the experiences Strether is soon to have in Paris. Strether, in contrast, seems unable to see any glimmer of what the future holds for him. Miss Gostrey speaks wryly, almost sarcastically, when she calls the potential effect of Strether’s mission an “immense service” for Chad. Her tone stems from the fact that she assumes that Chad is not only not in need of any service but also that he will be unable to appreciate Strether’s attempt at offering him help. Also, Miss Gostrey presents an awareness of the falsity of what those in Woollett see as “service.” Miss Gostrey understands that Strether is espousing provincial, ignorant, meddling ideas. Miss Gostrey, who is aware that the social landscape of Woollett is quite different from that of Paris, is quietly mocking “poor Strether.” Throughout the novel, she will act as his translator—between two cultural languages, between two social worlds.
This exchange stands as the first instance of Miss Gostrey acting in her role as Strether’s confidant. Miss Gostrey serves as the voice of doubt that counter-balances Strether’s constantly overflowing enthusiasm. Initially, Strether needs her eyes and thoughts to process the events he witnesses and participates in. As an observer, he is naïve and too easily swayed by the manner in which people color the things they present to him. (For example, Strether immediately assumes that Chad has no lover when Chad arrives alone. Miss Gostrey, however, sees through Chad’s evasiveness and convinces Strether to think otherwise.) Under Miss Gostrey’s tutelage, Strether develops the ability to discern the truth behind the social interactions he observes. By the end of the novel, he will even see through Miss Gostrey’s actions and understand the motivations that lie underneath her willingness to dedicate so much of her time and energy to helping him. Indeed, he will discover the nature of her feelings for him and realize that she has fallen in love. But during the conclusion of The Ambassadors, Strether cannot give himself to Miss Gostrey, because he understands her too well. He sees right through her desire for him, just as she, ironically, has trained him to do.
His name on the green cover, where he had put it for Mrs. Newsome, expressed him doubtless just enough to make the world . . . ask who he was. . . . He was Lambert Strether because he was on the cover, whereas it should have been, for anything like glory, that he was on the cover because he was Lambert Strether.
This quotation comes during the second half of Book Second, during a point at which Strether is thinking about his professional association with Mrs. Newsome and the narrative voice is still introducing readers to details of Strether’s life and identity. The interesting feature of this exposition is that it focuses on more than just personal details from Strether’s life. Readers also get a sense of the impressions and feelings Strether has about his personal details. In this way, this quotation serves both as an introduction to Lambert Strether the man and to Lambert Strether the functioning central consciousness of the novel The Ambassadors. The “cover” he refers to in the quotation is that of the literary magazine funded by Mrs. Newsome and edited by Strether. That Strether mentions Mrs. Newsome before he mentions his own contribution to the magazine speaks to his detachment even from his own work. In addition, the fact that the credit he gets on the cover is, to him, ironic, further displays his detachment and disinterest in this aspect of his life. He feels that he becomes Lambert Strether because that is the name that gets printed on the cover—he does not feel that he earns credit for his work as a man separate from that work. His identity comes from the work; the work does not come from his identity.
The loose link between Strether and his work resonates with Strether’s purpose in Paris. He goes to Europe because Mrs. Newsome has asked him to go, and not because he hopes to gain something from being in Paris. While there, he finds a more concrete self than the phantom self the magazine cover created. Likewise, the fact that Strether works professionally as an editor foreshadows Strether’s role in Paris, as a figurative reader of the many versions of Chad’s story. Throughout The Ambassadors, Strether must “read,” or interpret, and alter Chad’s story to justify his involvement in Chad’s life. At the end, he finally realizes the truth of Chad’s tale, just as he discovers a true version of his own life story. Coming to terms with this truth is the noble project Strether must undertake at the end of the novel. Although Strether begins as merely a name on the cover of a magazine, he becomes much, much more through his time in Paris, and he will arrive back in Woollett as a greatly changed man.
This place and these impressions . . . of Chad and of people I’ve seen at his place—well, have had their abundant message for me. . . . [T]he right time now is yours. The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have. . . . .Of course I don’t take you for a fool, or I shouldn’t be addressing you thus awfully. . . . Live!
This quotation occurs during the novel’s first climax, in the middle of Book Fifth. A climax is the most dramatic moment in a book, the point at which various themes culminate, tensions peak, and at least some characters are forever altered—the climax is a point of no return. In this early climax, Strether finally articulates all that he has been learning, seeing, digesting, and doing in Paris. According to legend, Henry James heard this speech almost verbatim during a party he attended. Later, James called this speech the “germ” for the entire novel The Ambassadors. At a similar garden party, James overheard his good friend, the writer William Dean Howells, speak similar words to the younger Jonathan Sturges. From this experience, James felt inspired to create a fictionalized account of an older man, one who has not lived life to its full potential, who realizes what he has been missing, and who expresses this newfound wisdom to a younger friend. The older man, in this scene, is Strether. The younger man is little Bilham, Strether’s friend and surrogate son.
Throughout the first half of the novel, Strether has grown increasingly open and at ease in Europe; this quotation demonstrates the openness and ease. Paris has helped Strether not only to relax but also has inspired him to develop a true enjoyment of the details of life and to reflect on his past, a time at which Strether was unable to truly enjoy life. Before speaking these words to Bilham at Gloriani’s garden party, Strether meets Madame de Vionnet and assumes she is Chad’s close friend. Afterward, he makes the brief acquaintance of Jeanne de Vionnet and, finding her elegant and good mannered, approves of her as an appropriate lover for Chad. Thanks to these experiences, Strether finds himself in a positive state of mind. When he ends up face to face with the younger Bilham, Strether feels inspired to express, explicitly, his new optimistic views. This moment is the first instance of Strether explicitly commenting on his internal changes. Although Strether continues to change and grow in the second half of the novel, he never forgets the feeling than one should “live.” Even though he feels it may be “too late” for him, much of what Strether does for the rest of the book is “live,” freely and openly, in a manner that would be impossible for him in Woollett.
He had never before, to his knowledge, had present to him relics, of any special dignity, of a private order. . . . [These objects] marked Madame de Vionnet’s apartment as something quite different from Miss Gostrey’s little museum of bargains and from Chad’s lovely home; he recognized it as founded much more on old accumulations that had possibly from time to time shrunken than on any contemporary method of acquisition or form of curiosity.
At the start of Book Sixth, Strether joins Chad in a visit to Madame de Vionnet’s apartment. During this visit, he begins fully to notice the differences between American culture, American culture in Europe, and European culture. In a way, his feelings about Madame de Vionnet’s rooms as compared to Miss Gostrey’s rooms serve as a metaphor for the difference he observes between Americans and Europeans in Europe. When Strether first enters Miss Gostrey’s room, pages before the above incident, he is bewildered by the ornate crowdedness of her quarters. His Woollett-born puritan ethic finds fault. He thinks the rooms are oppressive, because they are “charged with possessions,” an “empire of things.” He finds Miss Gostrey’s decorations to be a “form of curiosity” and feels her taste speaks negatively of her desire to acquire, to collect, to horde. This clashes with Strether’s puritan idealization of the renunciation of the “lust of the eyes and pride of life.” When he enters Madame de Vionnet’s home, however, he finds a different brand of acquisition. Madame de Vionnet’s possessions speak not of a “contemporary acquisition” but of an ancient brand.
Madame de Vionnet’s apartment symbolizes Europe and the grandeur of European culture. The objects that decorate the walls are not objects collected to declare a personal voice. Rather, they are “old accumulations” that demarcate her position in an ancient line, in a French tradition much greater than herself. Madame de Vionnet’s possessions say more about her lineage and her place in European tradition and genealogy than they do about her own desire to define herself. Unlike Miss Gostrey, who decorates based on taste, surrounding herself in things that speak to who she thinks she is, Madame de Vionnet’s decorations are inherited, not chosen by her but chosen for her at birth. While Miss Gostrey could redecorate, Madame de Vionnet’s decorations are as essential to her being as something like her nationality or genetic makeup. In realizing this, Strether begins to perceive the immaturity of American culture. He begins to see what can be learned from Europe, a place where the “self-made man” is rare, and not idealized. Madame de Vionnet’s rooms let Strether begin to understand the reality and profundity of the differences between America and Europe, Americans and Europeans.
“It is not a matter of advising you not to go,” Strether said, “but of absolutely preventing you, if possible, from so much as thinking of it. Let me accordingly appeal to you by all you hold sacred.”
Strether passionately speaks these words to Chad during their final conversation of the novel, in Book Twelfth. Strether has spoken no firmer or more direct words since his speech to Bilham during Gloriani’s garden party. Strether’s final appeal to Chad demonstrates his tremendous growth as a person: At the start of the novel, Strether arrived in Paris to convince Chad to return to Massachusetts. At the end of the novel, Strether implores Chad to stay in Paris. In that early conversation, Strether spoke with a certain reservation and questioned his own conviction. He blindly acted as ambassador because Mrs. Newsome had asked him to do so. Now, Stether stands behind his words with significant resolution, even though he knows that Chad will probably not follow his directions. Just as these firm words show a growth of character in Strether when he speaks them, they expose a contrasting weakness of character in Chad. At this late stage in the novel, Strether has lost faith in Chad. He no longer idealizes the young man and instead worries that he is callous and noncommittal to a fault. Evidence suggests that Strether is correct.
This quotation shows yet another contrast between European and American culture. Strether calls upon everything Chad holds “sacred” to urge him to stay, but Strether realizes that Chad holds sacred just his own livelihood and self-gain. Chad has no honor, no sense of loyalty, and no real passion for either Europe or Madame de Vionnet. He represents an immature American culture, which worships the dollar over all else. Strether firmly believes that if Chad stays in Paris, his exposure to Madame de Vionnet will continue and as a result Chad will continue to grow in refinement, a hallmark of European culture. But he has also begun to realize that Chad cares little for the kind of abstract growth. During their last conversation, Chad indicates a strong interest in advertising and in learning the mechanics of running his family’s business. Chad has already lost interest in what Europe can give him. He has now turned his attention to the financial excitement awaiting him in the United States, under his mother’s control in Woollett. In the end, Strether realizes that because Chad lacks “imagination,” these materialistic interests will lure him away from the things Strether thinks are more important: inner growth and cultural development, which are only available to Chad in Europe.