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The Ambassadors

Henry James

Book Seventh

Book Sixth

Book Eighth

Summary

The book opens twelve days after Strether had dinner with Madame de Vionnet and her daughter at Chad’s apartment. At that dinner, he had decided that saving Madame de Vionnet, rather than saving Chad, was his true calling. After making this decision, Strether finds himself worrying deeply about the state of his relationship with Mrs. Newsome and his progress on her task. In addition, Miss Gostrey has been away on vacation for weeks, and Strether has not heard from her. Strether lacks a friend with whom to process his worries and thus seeks refuge, repeatedly, inside the great Catholic cathedral Notre Dame, in the center of Paris. There, he hopes to escape his worries. During his visits, he finds himself impressed by the focused devotion of a conspicuously dressed lady who is often praying when he visits. One day, on closer inspection, he realizes that this woman is none other than Madame de Vionnet. They lunch together and talk. Strether finds himself more deeply drawn to Madame de Vionnet. He tells her that he has written to Mrs. Newsome describing Madame de Vionnet favorably and is awaiting Mrs. Newsome’s reply. She asks him if Mrs. Newsome wishes to marry Chad off. Strether finds her to be more wonderful than ever, thinking she is asking for his help in taking care of Chad.

Three days later, Strether finally receives a telegraph from Mrs. Newsome. Upon reading it, he becomes angry and crumples it into his fist, and then he sits in shock. Waymarsh observes him sitting, stunned, but does not confront him immediately. Strether then rescues the letter and smoothes it out. Looking up, Strether finally notices Waymarsh watching him and gets up to join him for dinner. Strether insists to Waymarsh that all is well. The next morning, however, Chad arrives at Strether’s room and sees the telegraph. He tells Strether that they should begin their journey to America “straight off.” Strether explains that Mrs. Newsome has sent him an ultimatum to return to Woollett, with or without Chad, but that he is not ready to go. He tells Chad that if he stays, Mrs. Newsome will send a new batch of ambassadors: her daughter, Sarah Pocock; Sarah’s husband, Jim Pocock; and Jim’s sister, Mamie Pocock. Chad knows that this missive means that Mrs. Newsome no longer trusts Strether, and Chad insists that he is ready to go back to Woollett post haste. Strether repeats that he is not ready and asks Chad to help him stay for one more month. Strether reminds Chad that Chad “owes” him. Chad agrees.

That day, Strether goes to meet Miss Gostrey at long last. He informs her that Waymarsh has been in communication with Woollett, as an informer. He tells her also about the ultimatum, which is not unexpected. Miss Gostrey finds him positively changed since her departure. However, Strether finds their interaction slightly altered, as if the novelty of their relationship has faded along with the novelty of Europe. Strether goes on to explain that he asked Chad to help him remain in Europe and that Chad has agreed to stay, for now. Two days after his conversation with Miss Gostrey, the Pococks send word that they have left Woollett and are on their way to Paris. Strether realizes that although he still writes abundantly to Mrs. Newsome, his words are hollow. For her part, she seldom writes to him now, yet she is ever present in his mind. He eagerly awaits the arrival of the second wave of ambassadors, especially Sarah Pocock, Mrs. Newsome’s daughter. He confidently believes that the behavior of Sarah will expose to him the true nature of Mrs. Newsome’s feelings toward him.

Analysis

James deliberately structured and patterned The Ambassadors so that the two halves of the book parallel and echo each other. For instance, the first half of the book shows Strether quickly securing his two main companions, whose advice he will rely on while in Europe. Strether meets both Waymarsh and Miss Gostrey in the first chapter. In the seventh book, in the first chapter of the second half of the novel, Strether meets Madame de Vionnet almost immediately. This meeting symbolizes a sea change in their interaction: from now on, Strether will rely on and frequently interact with the madame. The friendship they develop will last until the very end of the novel. Ironically, Strether meets Madame de Vionnet and becomes personally acquainted with her while seeking solitude in Notre Dame. In the first book, Strether met Miss Gostrey under similar circumstances: after he learned that Waymarsh had been detained, and thus Strether would be alone in England for a while.

In addition to the parallel early meetings between Strether and the two women, both beginning chapters introduce the challenges that Strether will face in the upcoming chapters. The first book introduces readers to Chad, to his life in Paris, and to Strether’s mission. We also see the characters anxiously anticipating Chad’s arrival. Strether spends a lot of time preparing for the meeting with Chad, and the narration dramatizes his internal deliberations by presenting Strether’s discourse with Miss Gostrey. The seventh book introduces us to the Pocock clan, the second wave of ambassadors, and we begin to understand the full import of their arrival. Strether’s relationship with Mrs. Newsome has fundamentally altered for the worse. In both early chapters, Strether’s thoughts and conversations with others about the impending action provide the context for the arrival. As in the first half of the book, an upcoming meeting makes the characters antsy with anticipation. In the novel’s second half, Strether discusses the eventual arrival of Sarah Pocock and her clan with Madame de Vionnet, Chad, and Miss Gostrey. His thoughts about the new ambassadors become as all consuming as his thoughts about Chad had been at the opening of the novel.

Both opening chapters also present Strether as processing intense emotions. In the first chapter, Strether feels a renewed sense of freedom and optimism after many years of stagnation and boredom. Now, in Book Seventh, Strether struggles to come to terms with the repercussions of his earned freedom. Strether has taken six books—the entire first half of The Ambassadors—to reject Mrs. Newsome’s mission. The second half of the novel begins another journey toward another transition for Strether. By mirroring the structure of the novel’s opening, James foreshadows the course of the second half of the book: Strether shall learn a lot about life, but he shall suffer for this knowledge.

Finally, both chapters have a peculiar relationship to the interior and exterior worlds. Neither opening chapter focuses on exteriors. Similarly, neither opening gives much description relating to the time, setting, or space. Nevertheless, both chapters take place in specific places: the first occurs in the garden of a hotel in Chester, England. We do not know the name of the hotel, but we do know that the town exits in real life. The lack of physical description frees readers to focus on the development of the characters, as portrayed by the interaction between Strether and Miss Gostrey. In contrast, Book Seventh begins in Notre Dame, a famous cathedral in Paris. Many readers both past and present would have some familiarity with the cathedral—and would thus be able to situate the fictional characters into a real place. Although both chapters document Strether’s perceptions and foreground how these perceptions shall change, the opulent setting of Book Seventh indicates the greater significance of the changes to come.

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