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The Ambassadors

Henry James

Book Eleventh

Book Tenth

Book Twelfth

Summary

Strether goes to Chad’s apartment, but Chad is not home. He enters regardless and stands on the balcony. As he waits, Strether reminisces about his first meeting with Bilham, the desire to live fully that was born at that time, and his own youth, realizing that Paris has changed him. When Chad arrives, Strether tells him about his meeting with Sarah, and Chad admits that he had sent Sarah to Strether. Strether suggests that Sarah may have been intimidated by Chad’s improved character, and he expresses his willingness to take the blame for Chad’s refusal to return home. Strether adds that he wants to visit Sarah again. Chad thinks this is futile and warns that he may lose Mrs. Newsome’s hand, and thus her fortune, but Strether insists. Chad explains that he thinks his mother hates that Chad has been in Europe, and they both agree that Chad’s return to Woollett will be a triumph for Mrs. Newsome. Strether warns that it will also herald a defeat for the Chad born of Paris, the Chad that Strether has found so impressive. Throughout the conversation, Chad and Strether inadvertently confuse Sarah and Mrs. Newsome.

The next day—after his second meeting with Sarah—Strether meets with Miss Gostrey again, to help him digest the events of the past few days. He asks Miss Gostrey to stay in town as his support, even though the Pococks are leaving for Switzerland, but Miss Gostrey retorts by playfully asking him if he is in love with Madame de Vionnet. Strether then says that he needs Miss Gostrey to stay in Paris. They then discuss why Miss Gostrey disappeared for several weeks. Finally, Strether recounts the circumstances of his short meeting with Sarah that morning. Strether willingly admits his culpability in Chad’s actions to Miss Gostrey, who asks Strether if he still wants Mrs. Newsome. Rather than answer outright, Strether explains that Chad has vowed to do whatever Strether wants him to do: whether Chad stays in Paris or returns to the United States is up to Strether. Miss Gostrey and Strether come to an agreement that Sarah and Mrs. Newsome had already decided and that no amount of coaxing, and no display of growth on Chad’s part, would have ever swayed their minds toward the cause of keeping Chad in Paris. Miss Gostrey mentions the possibility that Chad and Madame de Vionnet might take a vacation from Paris for a while, leaving Strether alone in the city.

A few days later, Strether jumps on a train and takes a day trip to a suburb of Paris. He finds the surroundings to be entirely quaint and feels as if he is walking inside a painting he almost purchased years ago. He feels extremely content, full of joy, and in harmony with the natural world. He takes a nap in a field and eventually goes to an inn to eat dinner. While waiting for a table to eat dinner, Strether walks into the inn’s garden and looks out over the passing river, where he notices a familiar couple in a boat. At first he only notices the relative intimacy of the couple, but then the woman notices Strether watching them and alerts her companion. In a frozen moment, Strether realizes the two are Madame de Vionnet and Chad. Finally, they greet each other, eat dinner together, and head home to Paris as a trio on the same train. Back in his hotel that night, Strether realizes that the couple had intended to spend more than just that day in the suburbs and that he had interrupted an intimate liaison.

Analysis

The eleventh book demonstrates Strether’s awareness of himself as a changed man. At the book’s start, Strether waits for Chad in Chad’s apartment, taking time out of the present moment to reflect upon his original impressions of Europe and of his life as an adult. Slowly and subtly, he begins to assess the changes that he has gone through since sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. Strether is almost entirely a different man now than he was when he first landed in Chester, England, at the start of The Ambassadors. Strether informs Chad that he must speak to Sarah Pocock again as a man fully aware of the ramifications this action will most likely have—he has no illusions about his relationship to Sarah and the others. He also knows that the money Mrs. Newsome represents will not be worth anything if he cannot accept it with full honor and ethical purity. Likewise, he knows that regardless of what becomes of his relationship to Mrs. Newsome, he has interacted with, loved, and been loved by women of much greater stature than she. Not only has his need for Mrs. Newsome changed, but his understanding of who she is has been permanently altered as well. Whatever happens in the future, Strether will utilize his newfound understanding in all aspects of his life.

This book tweaks traditional definitions of marriage. Whereas readers might believe that two people should marry for love, the conversation between Strether and Miss Gostrey underscores the financial ramifications of marriage. Historically, marriage financially benefited the woman, who was expected to take care of the children and the house while the man earned money. The Ambassadors twists this traditional definition in two ways: first, the novel presents a woman who earns her own living, without a husband. Single Miss Gostrey works as a guide in Europe. Second, in the conversation between Miss Gostrey and Strether, readers see that Strether will benefit financially by marrying Mrs. Newsome—and not the other way around. Marrying would give Strether a secure financial and social position. Historically, marriage provided women—not men—with those things.

Book Eleventh begins quietly and ends dramatically as the climax of the entire novel. Formally, this book echoes Book Fifth, the penultimate book of the first half of the novel. This book is also the penultimate chapter of the second half, and it houses the novel’s greatest climax. The first two sections of the book situate this climax. Strether, asserting once and for all his belief in Chad’s goodness and his confidence in the virtue of the relationship between Madame de Vionnet and Chad, heads out of town to repose by himself. On this trip, Strether finds himself not only at peace with the drama of Mrs. Newsome’s task but also entirely at one with the landscape, the French countryside, and with himself. The fact that he spends most of the afternoon dwelling on his past, taking in the sights, and feeling as if he were living inside a painting he almost bought in his youth speaks to the comfort and lightheartedness he feels in Europe and with his own decisions. Having accepted his altered worldview, Strether has the strength and emotional fortitude to handle the shock of seeing Madame de Vionnet and Chad on the river.

Unlike the climaxes in most popular contemporary novels, the climax of The Ambassadors is quiet, subtle, and lacking in any overt, boisterous action. In the climatic scene, no villain is captured and no character is killed. Instead, an obscure truth is revealed, a reality is recognized—and that is all: nothing more occurs. Strether stumbles upon Madame de Vionnet and Chad in an intimate moment on the boat, but the couple is behaving appropriately and with decorum. However, the manner in which they hold themselves—and the ease with which they relate to one another—reveals to Strether all that he had been ignoring for so long. All in one sudden moment the truth about their relationship becomes clear to him. The pair does not have an innocent, virtuous relationship, as Strether mistakenly believed, but rather a sexual relationship. This moment of realization represents the novel’s climax, because afterward Strether has no choice but to deal with what he has seen, noticed, and realized. The moment on the river is a point of no return. After he sees Madame de Vionnet and Chad on the boat, there is no new information that needs to come to light for the novel to reach its dénouement, or conclusion.

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