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The Ambassadors

Henry James

Book Second

Book First

Book Third

Summary

Before Strether goes to the theater with Miss Gostrey on his third day in London, they eat dinner together at his hotel. When she arrives, he realizes that he has never dined with a woman before attending the theater. He married as a young man and, even after his wife died, never became involved in such activities. At dinner, he sits opposite Miss Gostrey and compares her to Mrs. Newsome. Unlike Mrs. Newsome, who wears conservative clothing, Miss Gostrey dresses with flair. Strether finds her style to be much more appealing than Mrs. Newsome’s. However, this realization—and her style—makes him feel a little self-conscious. The play is about a bad woman and an innocent, attractive young man. It reminds Strether of his mission: to rescue Mrs. Newsome’s son, Chad, from the influences of a similar woman. In conversation, Miss Gostrey infers the rest: Strether’s mission is to pry Chad free and return him to Woollett, where he will run his family’s business. She is right.

Together, Miss Gostrey and Strether discuss his ambassadorial assignment. Strether explains that Chad is twenty-eight and has one older, married sister. Strether assumes that Chad’s lover must be vile and admits that, in addition to being his fiancée, Mrs. Newsome is his employer, funding the magazine he edits. He also admits that he somewhat fears Sarah Pocock, Chad’s sister. Sitting on a divan in the theater lobby after the play, while they wait for a cab for Miss Gostrey, she suggests that Europe may have refined Chad rather than spoilt him. Strether protests. Miss Gostrey assumes that Strether thinks he is doing Chad a great service and Strether agrees. He is convinced that Chad will be better off in Woollett married to the girl they have in mind for him, Mamie Pocock. Mamie, he clarifies, is the sister of Chad’s sister’s husband—and the most beloved eligible girl in Woollett. She then asks him what he will gain for successfully completing this task. Although Strether insists that he will gain nothing, he simultaneously admits that he stands to lose “everything” should he fail to bring Chad home. With that, Miss Gostrey enters the cab alone.

Later, on his second day in Paris, Strether goes to the bank to pick up his mail. He feels guilty that he went to the theater again, this time with Waymarsh, who has joined him in Paris. Strether thinks that all his actions should relate directly to his mission. But he does not open his letters right away. Instead, he takes a leisurely walk around town. He walks to the Luxembourg Gardens on the river Seine and begins to dwell on the positive influence of the city on his disposition. He flips through a bunch of detailed letters from Mrs. Newsome and discovers that his absence is hardly felt in Woollett. In the gardens, he feels relaxed. In Europe, unlike in Woollett, he feels a great sense of escape.

Strether reminisces about his business and personal failures. He wonders if he failed his young son (now deceased) by mourning too long for the mother. He recalls his earlier trip to Europe and remembers how, after returning from that trip, he had brought home not only literary souvenirs but also a greatly improved sense of taste and inspiration. In addition, he brought home to the United States an immeasurable optimism, and he feels it again. He then wonders if the excitement of Paris is distracting him from his task and navigates the city streets again. He comes upon the Boulevard Malesherbes, opposite Chad’s building. Looking up, he sees a young man smoking on the balcony. The man notices him. Although he knows the man is not Chad, Strether feels drawn to this youth as if to a version of Chad. He crosses the street and enters the house.

Analysis

The second book continues to emphasize the contrasts between Europe and the United States through the experiences of Strether. This book informs readers about Strether’s past, including his personal history and his relationship to American puritan culture. Although it may seem surprising that Strether had never in his life dined alone with a women before going out for the evening, in turn-of-the century New England, however, this kind of intimate engagement with a member of the opposite sex was reserved only for courtship and sexual relationships. Seen in historical context, it makes sense that Strether, who married young and never courted as a widower, would not have taken part in such an activity. But this detail does not simply highlight the difference between the social freedom of European culture and the more restrained social practices in Woollett, Massachusetts. This detail also exposes the deep influence American puritan culture has on Strether as an individual. But, while he is unused to the social openness and freedom of Paris, his dinner with Miss Gostrey shows that he is beginning to adjust to it. At dinner, when Strether compares Miss Gostrey to Mrs. Newsome, Miss Gostrey comes out favorably. He shows his open-mindedness and willingness to see the positive nature of European freedom. Strether’s entire relationship to puritan culture is on the verge of changing dramatically.

The conversation between Miss Gostrey and Strether regarding his mission to Paris demonstrates the small-town, provincial outlook of Woollett, Massachusetts. As Strether talks, it becomes obvious that his friends in Woollett have a blatant bias against Paris. They consider Chad to be the prodigal son, who must return to the United States to take over the mysterious family business and save it from ruin. Interestingly, Strether never reveals the nature of the business; he will only tell Miss Gostrey that it is “vulgar.” The people of Woollett believe Paris to be an evil place. They also assume that an unhealthy liaison with a woman keeps Chad in Paris—that someone might stay in Paris of his own volition is unimaginable. To Strether, and to the Woollett community he represents, Paris seems to have bewitched Chad. Strether has arrived to break the spell, embodied in the form of a female seductress. At this stage, Strether knows nothing but these suspicions. But Miss Gostrey helps Strether begin to see just how limited and provincial his outlook really is. Familiar with the reality of the Parisian social landscape, Miss Gostrey begins to help Strether readjust his perspective. At this point, she assumes her role as Strether’s guide and confidant. As such, she offers Strether his first glimpse of new understanding by suggesting that Europe may not be the place Woollett thinks it is.

This book also reveals Strether’s complicated relationships with women. Despite their engagement, the relationship between Strether and Mrs. Newsome comes off as cold, devoid of passion, and baldly economic: Mrs. Newsome is not only Strether’s fiancée but also his employer. He speaks of Mrs. Newsome as an important social figure back in Massachusetts and as an “old friend.” But he speaks of her as coldly and objectively as one might speak of a public figure or a politician, not as one might speak of a betrothed. Even though Strether speaks positively about Mrs. Newsome, she comes off in a very negative light, particularly when compared to young, pert Miss Gostrey. Nevertheless, Strether ultimately leaves Miss Gostrey and returns to Mrs. Newsome in the final book. Throughout The Ambassadors, the manner in which Strether thinks about things and the way he chooses to speak about them often contradict one another. The novel’s meaning resides in what is shown, not in what is said.

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