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The Ambassadors

Henry James

Book Third

Book Second

Book Fourth

Summary

That evening, Strether eats dinner with Waymarsh. They discuss Stether’s walk around the city, and Strether reports that he plans to have breakfast the following morning with the young man he met at Chad’s apartment. Waymarsh criticizes Strether’s method of checking in on Chad. Strether admits that he really knows very little about Chad’s situation. He then explains that the young man he met is named John Little Bilham. Little Bilham is house-sitting for Chad while he is in Cannes (a French resort town). Waymarsh asks if Chad is with a woman in Cannes, but Strether does not know. Strether asks Waymarsh to join him the next day for the meeting but is surprised, the next day, when Waymarsh does decide to join him. They eat in Chad’s apartment, along with another friend of Chad’s, Miss Barrace. Strether wonders if Bilham is trying to deceive him by inviting Miss Barrace but decides, in the end, to just focus on how things appear on the surface.

At the end of the week, Miss Gostrey arrives in Paris. Strether, who is very excited to see her, goes to visit her as soon as he is notified of her arrival. At her apartment, Strether recaps his entire first week in Paris and finds himself significantly at ease in her presence. He tells her the story of his meeting with Bilham and reports that he likes Bilham a great deal. Miss Gostrey requests her own meeting with Bilham so that she can form her own opinion of the young man. She also comments on everything Strether has learned of Chad. She asks Strether if it all seems as dreadful as he anticipated and laughs when Strether reports that it actually seems quite wonderful. Miss Gostrey explains that Chad would not go to Cannes with the kind of vile woman Strether suspected, because Cannes is too classy a town to permit that type of immorality. All Strether can say is that he enjoyed his time with Bilham and hopes to see him more.

Miss Gostrey meets Bilham at the Louvre (the largest art gallery in Paris) some days later. Like Strether, she also enjoys Bilham a great deal. Strether assumes that her approval of Bilham equals an approval of his methods of intervening in Chad’s life. The day following the Louvre visit, Strether and Miss Gostrey join Bilham in his apartment, a small artist’s studio. Later, Miss Gostrey invites Strether, along with Waymarsh and Bilham, to a performance at the most popular theater in France, the Comedie Francaise. Bilham accepts the invitation but does not show up. Miss Gostrey pronounces that Bilham is working under the direction of Chad via telegraph from Cannes and theorizes that Chad has orchestrated even Strether’s incipient friendship with Bilham. Right then, a stranger is seated in their box just as the play begins. The stranger, Strether realizes, is Chad, much changed. Although Strether contemplates asking Chad outside to talk, he does nothing. Rather, he contemplates the changes in Chad’s demeanor: with gray hair and an improved appearance, Chad strikes Strether as incredibly mature.

Analysis

The third book begins by emphasizing the novel’s form over its content. Much of the action of The Ambassadors takes place “offscreen,” literally in the white space between chapters and books. Rather than filling readers on the details, James chooses another narrative technique: he situates two characters in a retrospective conversation before setting out to continue the action of the novel. At the beginning of the third book, the offscreen action of the second book gets explained. Apparently, at the end of the second book, Strether went up to Chad’s apartment and met little Bilham. By the time the third book begins, this meeting has already taken place, but readers learn about it only after Strether recounts it to Waymarsh over dinner. The significance of this conversation is the way that Strether relates the event in his own words. For a moment, Strether assumes the narration to contextualize the events that took place between chapters. Strether, as narrator, can show his feelings, rather than merely telling his feelings, through what he chooses to say—or not to say—about the meeting with Bilham.

The manner in which Strether relates the tale of his meeting with little Bilham to Waymarsh demonstrates the great degree to which Paris has affected him, even after such a short stay. Strether takes great delight not only in his new friendship but also with the exciting adventures of Chad in glamorous Cannes. That Chad might be eluding him or that Bilham might be deceiving him never crosses Strether’s mind. For a man on a mission, Strether seems remarkably unaffected by the fact that he has yet to even see Chad. Possibly Strether’s lack of interest stems from the fact that Strether has become more interested in his own life, in living his life to the fullest and savoring his experiences, than in “rescuing” Chad. Strether is not a moralistic man: although he has morals, he does not often try to impose his ideas of morality onto others. (This characteristic lets him encourage Chad to stay in Paris even after he discovers the true nature of Chad’s relationship with Madame de Vionnet.) He acts on Chad’s behalf only to the degree that the Woollett contingent has asked him to so act. But Strether is unable to ignore the effect that Paris is having on him, and he cannot help but fall for little Bilham—and for the enchanted Parisian artist’s life that Bilham represents.

The third book ends with a significant plot development that underscores Strether’s changes: Chad arrives. In a markedly dramatic moment, he sneaks into the theater box just as the show is beginning. Significantly, no one reacts to his arrival until after the play—and the beginning of the fourth book. Strether feels too nervous to confront Chad right when he enters the booth, even though he recognizes the young man. Strether finds himself taken aback by Chad’s apparent physical transformation. Strether’s positive reaction to Chad’s new look reflects Strether’s changing—and increasingly positive—outlook in general. As Strether begins to think more favorably of Paris, he unwittingly allows these new feelings to affect his view of Chad and his mission as ambassador. Miss Gostrey foreshadowed this change when she urged Strether to withhold his biases until he met Chad and made sure that his supposed Parisian lover had not changed him for the better. At this point, Strether does not remember Miss Gostrey’s words, but they will end up being prophetic.

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