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The Ambassadors

Henry James

Book Sixth

Book Fifth

Book Seventh

Summary

Later on the same day as the garden party, Strether accompanies Chad on a visit to Madame de Vionnet’s home. After a few minutes, however, Chad departs and leaves Strether alone with Madame de Vionnet. Strether takes note of his surroundings, registering the differences among the homes of Madame de Vionnet, Chad, and Miss Gostrey. Madame de Vionnet asks Strether to become her friend and, in turn, to open himself up to the idea of accepting her and her daughter, Jeanne. She then asks him about Mrs. Newsome, wondering if she has given up on Strether’s ever pulling away from the lure of Europe. She urges Strether to tell Mrs. Newsome the complete truth about herself and her daughter. Strether asks her if she wants Chad to marry her daughter. She says no, and when Strether presses, Madame de Vionnet explains that “He likes her too much.” Strether assumes she means that he likes her too much to hurt her by taking her to America. Madame de Vionnet asks Strether to convince Mrs. Newsome that she has been a good influence on Chad. This seems like a simple enough request to Strether, so he assures her that he will try to “save” her if he can.

Ten days later, Chad urges Strether to get to know Jeanne de Vionnet. Chad claims that he wants to know what Strether thinks of the young lady. For reasons Strether does not understand, he agrees to meet with her. In Chad’s parlor, Strether finds himself with Jeanne and remarks that she is a rather beautiful child—a girl who has received an excellent upbringing from her mother, as well as a good education. However, Strether has trouble understanding what service he is providing to Chad by being there, next wondering if he might actually be doing Mrs. Newsome’s bidding by meeting with the young girl. He realizes that although he is reporting each of his actions to Mrs. Newsome through letters, he did not write to her about his promise to Madame de Vionnet. He begins to wonder if he is staying as focused on his task as he could be. Just then, Gloriani interrupts Strether’s meeting with Jeanne, and Miss Barrace begins to speak to him instead. She begins to compliment Jeanne, but Strether asks directly, with newfound confidence, whether Madame de Vionnet will divorce her husband to marry Chad. Caught off-guard, Miss Barrace says that she assumes Madame de Vionnet will not and that their relationship will continue as it has been. Strether takes Miss Barrace’s comments as further confirmation that Madame de Vionnet and Chad have a virtuous relationship. Miss Barrace and Strether begin talking about Waymarsh.

Suddenly Madame de Vionnet appears and asks Miss Barrace to leave her alone with Strether. Madame de Vionnet then asks Strether if Miss Gostrey has been avoiding her. Confused, Strether has no answer. The conversation turns to Jeanne, and Madame de Vionnet gets annoyed when Strether will not express his opinion of the girl outright. After they finish talking, Strether’s eyes meet with little Bilham’s, and they exchange a short dialogue about the de Vionnet women. Strether asks Bilham why he would not want to marry Jeanne, and Bilham claims that he would have no chance to marry her, given the other people involved, including Chad. This comment convinces Strether that he understands the situation. He tells Bilham that, in his opinion, the “high fine friendship” between Chad and Madame de Vionnet has caused Chad to change for the better. Bilham then cautiously tells Strether that Madame de Vionnet perhaps cares more for Chad than Chad cares for her. He asks if Strether will report this to Woollett, and Strether says that he will not. Bilham then suggests that he thinks Chad might be ready to go back to America. Strether, disagreeing, explains that he now sees that Madame de Vionnet needs to be saved—and not Chad. Strether thinks that Chad must stay in Paris in order to help her.

Analysis

The sixth book concludes the first half of The Ambassadors by presenting Strether and his experiences in almost complete opposition to how they appeared in the first book. The first six books form a cohesive formal unit, complete with a plot arc, climax, and significant character development. Whereas Strether once lacked confidence, he now possesses it, boldly asking Miss Barrace for information about whether Madame de Vionnet will get a divorce. Whereas Strether once relied on Miss Gostrey as a sounding board and fairy godmother, he now blithely gives his opinion of events and interactions, as when he tells Bilham that the virtuous relationship between Chad and Madame de Vionnet has caused Chad to grow as a person. Whereas he once spent his time checking his watch and hedging, he now moves from conversation to conversation almost effortlessly. Strether has grown from a hesitant and nervous American abroad into an expressive and content Francophile. Rather than report everything back to Mrs. Newsome, he now carefully decides what to put in his letters—and what to keep for himself. He has all but abandoned his original mission of bringing Chad back to Woollett in favor of befriending and helping Madame de Vionnet. The Strether of the first book probably would not recognize—or like—the Strether of the sixth book.

Although Strether’s allegiance shifts totally and completely from those in Woollett to those in Paris, the way he shows this allegiance has not changed. His loyalty now rests with the Parisian crowd, not with the folks back home. But this new allegiance depends on the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Bilham. Rather than questioning Bilham, Strether wholeheartedly accepts what Bilham says about the nature of the relationship between Chad and Madame de Vionnet. He now takes on Bilham’s worldview as easily as he once accepted the provincial outlook of Mrs. Newsome and the rest of Woollett. Caught up with his new friends, Strether believes what they tell him. For the moment, Strether has forgotten Miss Gostrey’s warning about Bilham’s trustworthiness. She pointed out early on that Bilham’s loyalty belongs first and foremost to Chad. Now Strether has shifted from favoring Mrs. Newsome and wanting to please her to favoring Madame de Vionnet and wanting to please her. Nevertheless, Strether continues to question his own thought process and motivation to some degree, as when he admits to himself that he has not been reporting everything to Mrs. Newsome. Although he has not been lying in his letters, he has not been exactly truthful either. This admission shows that Strether recognizes the changing nature of his ambassadorship: he will continue to help Chad but not in the way Mrs. Newsome has requested.

To Strether, Madame de Vionnet symbolizes Europe generally and Paris specifically. In the sixth book and elsewhere, the narrator refers to cosmopolitan Parisian women as femmes du monde, a French phrase meaning “women of the world.” Interestingly, Miss Gostrey does not fall into this category: worldly as she might be, she is nevertheless an American. As the novel begins, Strether believes Paris to be as vile as the woman with whom Chad is involved. He wants only to rescue Chad and return home. Upon spending time in Paris, however, Strether changes his mind—and he meets Chad’s lover just as he begins to enjoy his time in Paris. His view of her becomes wrapped up in his changing attitude toward Europe. In fact, the two become inextricably linked such that Madame de Vionnet becomes the human embodiment of the European city. Strether finds her charming, mysterious, multifaceted, intoxicating, and exotic, much as he finds Paris. As with the city, the woman can be many things to many people, depending on one’s outlook. The sixth book concludes with Strether telling Bilham that he wants Chad to stay in Paris, with Madame de Vionnet, another instance of Strether conflating the city with the woman.

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