Lambert Strether arrives in Chester, England, after a long journey by boat from the United States. At the hotel, he asks after his hometown friend, whom he is to meet there. Even though Strether learns that Waymarsh has not arrived, he is not disappointed. Meanwhile, he notices the familiar face of a young lady. They converse, and she claims to know Waymarsh and to have visited Waymarsh’s hometown of Milrose, Connecticut. She observes that the hotel has a garden, and after ten minutes of conversation there, Strether agrees to tour the town with her, after he has tidied up a bit in his room. After doing so, Strether returns and passes into the hall of the hotel with the young lady, where she asks if he knows her name. He admits that he does not. She explains that she asked after him at the front desk and gives him her card with her name, Maria Gostrey, and address in Paris on it. Strether remarks oddly that he comes from Woollett, Massachusetts. Miss Gostrey laughs. Strether displays mild embarrassment when speaking of his New England hometown.
Gostrey and Strether set out to tour Chester, and walk along the medieval wall that encloses the city. While walking, Strether remembers that it was here, twenty-five years ago, that he walked during his first and only other trip to Europe. At this thought, Strether begins to think of Waymarsh and looks at his watch. Miss Gostrey sees the gesture and asks if Strether finds their walk inappropriate. Strether insists that he does not and explains that this is his weakness: he is unable to focus on the present and is always considering unrelated matters. Miss Gostrey calls this a failure to enjoy life. He asks her to help him recover, and she agrees. When they arrive back at the hotel, Waymarsh is waiting. All three speak together, but Strether soon takes Waymarsh up to his room.
Later, neither man is able to sleep, so they reconvene at midnight. Waymarsh reports that he is bored in Europe. His goal is not fulfilled: he has not fully separated from his wife. She continues to send him angry letters. He inquires as to Strether’s reason for visiting Europe. He asks why Strether has traveled to Europe alone and not with his fiancée, Mrs. Newsome. Strether reports that he is there, rather, on her business. He urges Waymarsh to let him explain the nature of the business at a later time. Strether asks Waymarsh to travel with him to London. The next morning Strether reports last night’s conversation to Miss Gostrey. Strether had hoped she would show him Europe properly, and she explains that guiding Americans through Europe is her unofficial profession. Her specialty, she adds, is getting them to leave.
Miss Gostrey and the two men then take a walk together. They walk for a long while, during which time Strether reflects on his attitudes toward Europe. He hopes that in Europe he will be better able to experience the sweetness and feeling of leisure that is possible only on that particular continent. After a long period of silence, Waymarsh suddenly runs away from the group and into a shop. Alone with Strether, Miss Gostrey takes a moment to compare the men. She finds Strether superior to Waymarsh. Strether protests, pointing out that Waymarsh is more successful financially. But money does not interest Miss Gostrey. When Waymarsh returns with his purchase, Strether calls his action a “sacred rage.”
As in many of James’s novels, the opening paragraph of The Ambassadors introduces many of the themes that will be explored throughout the course of the novel. In this single paragraph, we learn that Strether is an American visiting Europe, that in Europe he feels a personal freedom he had not felt while in America, and that he has come to Europe seeking certain American contacts (the first being his friend Waymarsh). These facts help establish the central focus of the novel: this is a story about the interaction between Europe and America as dramatized through the experiences of one man, Lambert Strether. Before we learn why Strether has traveled to Europe, before we get the details about what he intends to do there, and even before we know anything specific about the man, we learn about how he feels different in Europe than he had in America. In this way, James foregrounds an aspect of the novel that may have seemed insignificant if it had been introduced alongside the numerous specific details about Strether and his mission. James clearly highlights the importance of this contrast between Europe and the United States.
In addition to laying out a thematic focus, the opening chapter of The Ambassadors also demonstrates the roles to be played by both the narrative voice and the character of Strether. From the opening pages, plot points, like setting, time, and physical description, come second. Instead, Strether’s thoughts are the focus of the narration. The novel opens with the dramatization of Strether’s mental activity coupled with an intellectual action: the opening three words of the novel are “Strether’s first question,” followed by a discussion of how he feels about Waymarsh, the friend he has come to meet. This beginning places Strether’s consciousness at the heart of the work. Strether’s thoughts, feelings, and perspective—that is, the way he sees the world and thinks about it—are what the novel is about. Strether, the physical man, is just a vessel for James’s stream-of-consciousness discussion. Put another way, Strether is not the “main character” of the novel, but his mind is.
The Ambassadors begins in media res, which means, literally, “in the middle of things,” as a way of familiarizing readers with James’s somewhat convoluted form. James’s novels take work to understand—and The Ambassadors is no exception. James uses the first book to establish the type of work the reader will need to perform to derive meaning from the novel. It takes James many pages to explain the true purpose of Strether’s time in Europe and to give the full history of Strether’s life. The delay in explaining the plot lets James focuses microscopically on Strether’s mental minutia. The narrator describes what is on Strether’s mind and what passes before Strether’s eyes, rarely stepping back to explain events that happened to Strether in the past or that are occurring in places where Strether is not. Rather than using the narrator to answer basic who-what-where-when questions about Strether, James uses the narrator to emphasize the novel’s main formal technique. This technique relies on Strether’s mental gymnastics and dialogue to fill the reader in on details that exist outside of the present moment. Only by following Strether’s early conversations with Waymarsh and Miss Gostrey will readers be able to understand the essential reason for Strether’s visit to Europe.