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The Ambassadors

Henry James

Book Fourth

Book Third

Book Fifth

Summary

When the play ends, Strether has a drink alone with Chad. Strether wonders if he is being too cruel but nonetheless bluntly tells Chad that he must leave Paris, end his affair, and return to Woollett. After he says what he has to say, Strether realizes that Chad’s change of character may complicate the original plan. He wonders if it is Paris that has made Chad so much more refined and mature. Chad realizes that Strether has been sent to retrieve him as a wedding present to Mrs. Newsome and begins to discuss the character of those in Woollett with Strether. Strether, like those in Woollett, assumes only a woman could be keeping Chad in Paris, an opinion that Chad finds offensive. He asks Strether if he thinks men are only kept in place by the influence of women. This strikes Strether as an interesting point. Chad then insists that he make his own decisions, which leads Strether to assume Chad does not have a lover in Paris.

After their meeting, Chad begins to pay a lot of attention to Strether, and Strether begins to write fewer letters to Mrs. Newsome. He explains to Miss Gostrey, however, that the few he does write are richer in detail. In one of these letters, he writes to tell Mrs. Newsome that there is no lady in Chad’s life in Paris. He realizes that this news will make Sarah Pocock suspicious, since she doubts Strether’s ability to complete the mission. Sarah Pocock originally proposed the idea that it must be a woman keeping Chad in the impure land of Europe generally and in vile Paris specifically. Miss Gostrey, however, tells Strether that she believes there must be a woman involved with Chad. Unknowingly, Miss Gostrey agrees with Sarah Pocock. But Miss Gostrey urges Strether to keep an open mind about the nature of Chad’s lover. Also, she tells Strether to be skeptical about Chad’s apparent goodness and his seemingly changed character. Strether finds this to be difficult: everything Chad does seems wonderful to him. Everything about Chad seems to have become wonderful during his time in Paris.

Eventually, Strether asks little Bilham to explain why Chad is unwilling to return to America. Bilham tells Strether that Chad is, indeed, in a relationship. But he clarifies and stresses that Chad’s relationship is a virtuous one. Knowing this, Strether begins to pressure Chad to set a specific date for their return to Woollett. Chad asks Strether to wait until he introduces him to two of his close friends, a mother and a daughter, who are returning to Paris very shortly. Strether meets with Miss Gostrey again and, as usual, seeks her advice on the matter at hand. Immediately, they begin to speculate about Chad’s relationship to these two women: is he romantically involved with the daughter? Is he in love with the mother? Could they really be virtuous women? Strether is nervous but also eager to find out.

Analysis

The fourth book starkly compares Paris to Woollett—to the benefit of the European city and the detriment of the American city. Chad describes Woollett not as a cultural or social center. Rather, it is a small, provincial piece of New England entrenched in its own customs, populated by a small, elite group that both fears change and clings to tradition. Unlike Paris, Chad implies, Woollett has very little to keep a man. In conversation with Strether, Chad contrasts his time in Paris with the Woollett way of life, and he urges Strether to question the repressive ways of the American town. Strether, who has already begun to question the influence of Woollett on his worldview, is susceptible to Chad’s insistence that he rethink his hometown. While conversing with Chad, Strether discovers that he has less confidence in his mission than he originally assumed he possessed, particularly as he begins to see Woollett in a less flattering light. This moment marks the first time that Strether’s belief in Mrs. Newsome’s ambassadorial mission begins to falter, as well as the moment at which the relationship between Chad and Strether begins to take an interesting, intimate shape. Even though their interaction continues under the pretense of Mrs. Newsome’s assignment, Strether will, from this point on, continue to second-guess his mission.

The conversation between Strether and Chad also demonstrates Strether’s complicated relationship with women. Like the rest of Woollett, Strether believes that Chad has stayed in Paris so long because of a woman. He cannot fathom that Chad might stay in the city for the city itself. But more than provincialism drives Strether’s attitude: he idealizes women. As a young man, Strether was unable to deal with the reality of his wife’s passing, a failure that, by his own admission, may have precipitated the death of his young son. Although he never got over these events (and is still quite prudish with women), he has traveled all the way to Europe to do the bidding of one such woman, Mrs. Newsome, who he admits is very demanding and stubborn. In the conversation between Strether and Chad, Strether assumes, without realizing it, that “one’s kept only by women,” as Chad puts it. When Chad questions Strether’s opinion, he also subtly questions the manner in which Strether has chosen to live his life.

Finally, the conversation between Chad and Strether teaches Strether to take a more active role in his thought process and his life. Rather than blindly assuming an opinion or worldview to be correct, Strether must learn to question and analyze the opinion or worldview. After Chad criticizes Strether’s views on the relationship between men and women, Strether begins to realize that he must stop being a passive participant in life. The lived life to which Strether aspires requires that he ask—and answer—demanding questions about himself, his opinions, his friends, and even his behavior. By forcing Strether to investigate his own character, Chad will actually end up helping Strether a lot more than Strether will ever manage to help Chad. In many ways, these two men, in such different stages of life and with seemingly opposite perspectives on Europe, will begin here to slowly switch from one opposition to the other. Although Strether begins as pro-Woollett and Chad as pro-Paris, each man will find the other to be more compelling then he finds himself. Eventually, when Chad finally comes to understand Strether’s perspective, Strether will no longer subscribe to his original stance. Likewise, by the time Strether comes to understand Chad’s passion for Europe, Chad will have changed his mind.

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