The Ambassadors

by: Henry James

Book First

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.