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The Ambassadors

Henry James

Book Fifth

Book Fourth

Book Sixth

Summary

The following Sunday, Chad arranges for Strether to meet his female friends, Madame de Vionnet and her daughter, Jeanne. He plans to take Strether to a party held in the garden of the famous Parisian sculptor Gloriani. Strether anticipates the event with great curiosity. Once there, the garden and the artistic, fashionable guests make a strong impression on Strether, and he begins to wonder what impression he is making on them. Strether wonders if he seems acceptable to the Parisians present, as well as to Chad and his expatriate friends. When little Bilham nears, he longs to ask him bluntly if he passes the test but cannot summon the courage. Instead, Strether asks Bilham about the other guests and whether the de Vionnets have arrived. Bilham says that they have returned to the city, but he is not sure yet if they are at the party. Strether asks Bilham about the “virtuous attachment” Chad has with these women. Bilham, cryptically, calls the attachment “magnificent.” Not sure what to do with this information, Strether inquires if Madame de Vionnet’s husband is still living. When he learns that he is, Strether finalizes his assumption that Chad must be in love with the younger de Vionnet. Just at that point, Chad’s friend Miss Barrace arrives and reiterates Bilham’s obscure but positive remarks. Strether begins to ask more questions, but then Chad appears.

Chad takes Strether to meet Madame de Vionnet. She speaks a unique style of English, which Strether finds rather charming. He thinks too that she looks rather young. She is dressed in black, looks thin, and smiles naturally. Together, they walk to a garden bench and sit. Strether tries to imagine a situation in which he could have met Madame de Vionnet in Woollett while they discuss simple things, like how much one has heard about the other. Suddenly, a couple approaches the bench, and a duchess whisks Madame de Vionnet away. Before Strether can process anything about their conversation, Bilham appears. Inspired by his surroundings, Strether begins to speak to Bilham about his experiences in Paris and in Chad’s world thus far. He also describes his regrets and disappointments. In a speech filled with sudden passion and sage advice, Strether urges Bilham to live and do all he can with the time he has before it is too late. He also explains that it is too late for him to follow his own advice.

At that moment, Chad, with a young Jeanne de Vionnet on his arm, approaches the two men. She is wearing white and is very pretty. Jeanne reports to Strether that her mother wants him to visit her. Again, their conversation is cut short. Chad pulls the girl away from Strether, and he is left again with Bilham, who soon departs. Miss Gostrey then joins Strether on the bench. He informs her that Chad’s lover is the daughter. She, in turn, offers herself as Strether’s guide in specific matters concerning Madame de Vionnet. While the rest of the party heads inside for tea, Miss Gostrey tells Strether that she attended school in Geneva with Madame de Vionnet twenty-three years ago. She also explains that the madame has been living apart from her brutish husband for years. Finally, Miss Gostrey mentions that she suspects that Madame de Vionnet wants Chad to marry her daughter.

The next morning, Chad visits Strether, and Strether pointedly asks Chad directly if he is engaged to Jeanne. Chad responds that he is not. He then tells Strether that he really wants Strether to become well acquainted with Madame de Vionnet. Strether agrees, on the condition that Chad “surrenders” himself to Strether from that point on. Chad says he will.

Analysis

The fifth book lets James continue to compare Europe with America but introduces a new lens through which to view the two places: society and social interaction. Strether is thrust into the heart of Parisian society at the garden party, which gives him the opportunity to compare it with Woollett society. His anxiety about whether he fits in emphasizes the glamorous outlook with which he views Paris. He clearly enjoys the party and the way people socialize and interact with one another. Even though Gloriani comes off as a caricature of a “successful artist” and has no sincere interaction with Strether, Strether finds the man charming. In addition, he likes the idea that Chad would be in the same social coterie as such a successful and artistic man. The party helps Strether discover a whole new level on which to be delighted with Paris and, in this way, helps crystallize Strether’s good opinion of Europe. He tries to imagine meeting Madame de Vionnet in Woollett but realizes that he could never meet her there—because she is entirely different from anything American culture could produce. What she is, however, is wonderful, and he cannot help but be charmed by her. By the time he finds himself alone with Bilham, his appreciation of Paris has blossomed into something resembling full-blown love.

As American men in the prime of life, Bilham and Chad represent younger versions of Strether. Because Strether regrets his life’s failures, particularly how little he actually lived or experienced life as a young man, he hopes to impart his hard-won wisdom on Bilham and Chad. If possible, he wants to prevent them from making the same mistakes he made at their age—and to save them from experiencing the negative emotions Strether now feels when he looks back over his own life. As he sits at the party, feeling happy to be in Paris, Strether becomes inspired to impart this love and these lessons to Bilham. He urges Bilham to “live” not only because he finds himself “living” much more fully in Paris, but also because he realizes that this way of life has made him a great deal happier. But in advising Bilham, Strether is also speaking to himself. You should have lived, he tells himself, and you must try and live every single second you still can. This realization colors the rest of Strether’s actions throughout the remainder of The Ambassadors. His open-mindedness, his eagerness to understand, and his willingness to develop relationships with various people can all be seen as the byproducts of this new perspective.

Formally, Strether’s realization acts as the novel’s first climax, or moment of great intensity and drama. Here, as elsewhere, James lets Strether describe his experiences, rather than using an impartial narrator. This narrative choice increases the moment’s drama, because Strether clearly struggles to articulate his new consciousness and life lessons to Bilham. He speaks slowly, “with full pauses and straight dashes.” He tries to put this profound disappointment and startling fresh outlook into words. The dénouement, or tidying up of the messiness of the climax, will take place in the sixth book. James repeats this structure in the penultimate and final books of The Ambassadors: the second climax occurs in the eleventh book and its dénouement in the twelfth. The first climax allows James to demarcate the sum of the small changes Strether has been experiencing throughout the first half of the novel. While in Europe, Strether’s perspectives on propriety, on society, and on Europe have changed. Now, in one theatrical moment, he presents his changed life view to Bilham. He also foreshadows the end of the novel, at which point Strether leaves Europe and returns to Woollett.

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