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The Ambassadors

Henry James

Book Tenth

Book Ninth

Book Eleventh

Summary

At a large social gathering at Chad’s apartment, Strether finds that he remains impressed by the way Chad handles himself around guests. According to Strether, even with all of Parisian high society in attendance, Chad is still a consummate host and a true gentleman. Strether sits next to little Bilham, eager to speak to the young man. He asks Bilham about Sarah Pocock because, even after two weeks, he has no sense of what she thinks of Paris and has not spoken to her face to face. Bilham tells Strether that Sarah is in control of the affair and will soon pursue her own interests. Strether then begins to urge Bilham to marry Mamie Pocock—and he promises to leave the pair his estate upon his death. Bilham is at first disturbed but then delighted and agrees nonchalantly. He promises Strether that he will do whatever Strether wants, as long as it will help. He realizes that Strether wants him to marry Mamie to help Chad and Madame de Vionnet sanctify their relationship.

After talking to Bilham, Strether converses with Miss Barrace. They also discuss Sarah Pocock. Miss Barrace explains that she believes Sarah will get her way, even while she jokes that all of Parisian high society looks forward to Strether’s success at keeping Chad in Paris. She points out that Madame de Vionnet is doing her part for the cause by charming Jim. One morning following the party, Waymarsh comes to Strether at the hotel during breakfast. He informs Strether that Sarah would, at long last, like to see him. Strether jokingly asks if she is coming to kill him, and Waymarsh replies that she is coming to be “very very kind.” Waymarsh then informs Strether that he, along with Mamie, Jim, and Sarah, will be taking a one-month-long trip to Switzerland en route to America. Strether then inquires about Mrs. Newsome. Waymarsh claims he has no personal information about Mrs. Newsome, adding that he does not correspond with her. Although he does not believe Waymarsh, Strether lets the matter rest.

An hour later, Sarah Pocock arrives to meet Strether. Strether suspects that this meeting represents Mrs. Newsome’s attempt to give him a chance to change his course. However, Strether finds Sarah’s rigid posture and uptight composure to be humorous at first but then offensive. He realizes that she has come to make him submit to Mrs. Newsome’s cause, not to have a two-sided discussion with him. Sarah begins by reporting that Chad has agreed to leave if Strether gives him the word. Strether realizes that Chad may have placed all the blame on him but is willing to accept his guilt. Sarah expresses great disappointment in Strether, on behalf of herself and Mrs. Newsome. Strether, distressed, articulates his belief that none of his actions were calculated—he claims that he was merely responding to the positive truth he found in place of the negative things they suspected existed when they were all still in Woollett. He begs Sarah to admit that Madame de Vionnet is wonderful. She refuses. Then he begs her to concede that, at least, Chad has improved. She disagrees outright, instead postulating that his change is “hideous.” She leaves him at the hotel. Strether feels devastated.

Analysis

This book demonstrates the way in which Strether has found a community in Paris that functions like a surrogate family. Strether lost his wife and young son many years ago. Little Bilham becomes the adult son Strether never had: Strether confesses his deepest emotions to Bilham, gives Bilham unsolicited advice, and offers to leave Bilham his estate as an inheritance. With Bilham, Strether possess an articulateness that he does not have with Miss Gostrey, Madame de Vionnet, or Chad. His relationship with Bilham lets Strether act like a teacher, confidently discoursing on the ways of the world to an eager young listener and expressing his own intellectual growth and personal development. The conversation between Bilham and Strether at the party demonstrates Strether’s genuine affection for the young man. At first, the fact that Strether urges Bilham to marry Mamie—since Jeanne has gotten engaged to someone else—seems to suggest that Strether is selfishly willing to use Bilham to save Chad and Madame de Vionnet. But Strether’s comments about both Mamie and his estate underscore the fact that he genuinely wants to see the young people, but especially Bilham, avoid the mistakes he made as a young man. Even though Strether is not a father, he exhibits paternal desires.

Sarah Pocock acts as a foil, or opposite, to Strether. Even though Strether’s request that Bilham marry Mamie is ridiculous, the request comes from a generous place in his heart. Sarah, in contrast, embodies the close-mindedness of Woollett, which Strether spent the first half of the novel escaping. The rigidity and stubbornness that Mrs. Newsome metaphorically represented early in the work now comes to life in the actions of Sarah Pocock. The narrow Woollett perspective manifests in the way Sarah chooses to stay away from Strether and to keep him out of the process of her introduction to Europe. To Sarah and her mother, Europe has similarly corrupted both Strether and Chad. For this reason, the two women disregard Strether’s perspective on every issue, including Chad. By rejecting Strether and his views, Sarah, as well as Mrs. Newsome and the entire Woollett community they represent, also rejects any potentially positive influence Europe and European culture may have on her understanding of Chad and what is good for him. Unlike Strether, whose worldview has altered greatly while in Europe, Sarah remains rigidly attached to the worldview she arrived with.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Strether maintains a fundamental belief in the power of Europe to change people for the better. During his conversation with Sarah, Strether waits to find out whether Europe has affected her. The conversation provides a lot of drama for Strether and for readers, since no one yet knows whether Sarah has developed positive or negative impressions of Paris and Chad. At first, Strether assumes that her impressions will be negative, given Mrs. Newsome’s bias and the close relationship between mother and daughter. But Strether optimistically convinces himself that Sarah must, to some degree, see the positive aspects of Paris. During their meeting, Sarah rejects Strether’s view on every subject they discuss. Gradually Strether realizes that not only is Sarah strictly following her mother’s orders, but she is also following them without question or second thought. Nothing—not the food, wine, discussion, or sights—has altered Sarah’s view of Paris, Chad, or her ambassadorial mission. Ultimately Strether realizes that his cultural curiosity and naïve optimism are no match for Sarah’s puritan resolve.

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