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The Ambassadors

Henry James

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. Give your interpretation of Strether’s decision to return home at the end of the novel. Does it fit his character?

Throughout the second part of The Ambassadors, Strether seems intent on staying in Paris. He is so focused on this desire that he even urges Chad to stay and promises Madame de Vionnet that he will work to keep him there with her. However, at the very end of the novel, Strether resolutely decides he must leave, which seems to be a complete rejection of his previous sentiments. This drastic change may initially seem out of character for Strether, but it is actually not.

A number of events lead up to Strether’s change of direction and have a significant effect on the way he sees Europe and his relationship to the European social landscape. Strether is middle-aged, and the United States has been his home for every one of his fifty-five years. Just because he has a good time in Paris and gains a new way of looking at the world around him does not mean that he is completely comfortable there. When he begins to trust Madame de Vionnet, the only born-and-bred European he interacts with, he is optimistic about European culture and begins to find his own place in Paris. However, when he sees her intimately involved with Chad, he realizes two things: one, that his own love for her is futile, and, two, that she will willingly use him for her own gain. These realizations remind Strether that although he enjoys Europe, he is out of place there and will always be unable to fully understand the culture. Even though America will be forever different to him because of his enriched perspective, and even though he has developed an increased awareness of the country’s faults, he feels he is too old to live outside of his own culture, the only culture he will ever fully understand. In this way, Strether’s actions are perfectly in line with his introspective, self-conscious, and conservative character.

2. What is the significance of the structure of The Ambassadors?

The Ambassadors is a meticulously structured novel. Split into twelve equally sized chapters (called “books”), the novel also has two climaxes that each fall in the penultimate chapters of their respective sections. Likewise, the novel has many reoccurring structural elements, such as balcony scenes (in which new people become acquainted), two-person conferences (in which advice is given), and garden scenes (in which personal revelations are had). This structure allows James to imbue his novel with significance and meaning without having to add blatant plot or dialogue. For instance, when Strether comes upon Mamie standing on the balcony, the structure offers us an opportunity to compare this scene to the first scene involving a balcony, when Strether meets little Bilham. Because of this structured mirroring, we can automatically assume that little Bilham will play a role in the scene between Strether and Mamie. Sure enough, he does. Soon we also learn that Mamie is, indeed, waiting for little Bilham. Furthermore, both balcony meetings give Strether the opportunity to learn more about the two characters he interacts with on the balcony.

In another instance, we can trace the structure of the novel in an hourglass shape through Strether’s relationship to Paris. In the opening, Strether is in Paris only to extract Chad. Throughout the first part, he learns to appreciate the city, and by the middle he longs to stay. The second book begins with him conspiring with Chad to allow them both more time in Paris. However, as the second part continues, Strether becomes disillusioned with Paris until, by the end, he decides to leave. Tracing these kinds of patterns in the structure of The Ambassadors helps us derive meaning from a dense, complex text.

3. Compare the ambassadorial style of Strether to that of Sarah Pocock. How is one a more effective ambassador than the other?

Mrs. Newsome asks both Strether and Sarah Pocock to be her ambassadors in Europe. She asks them to bring her wayward son Chad back home. However, they have very different ambassadorial styles and attempt the task in divergent, and contradictory, ways. In the end, they have very different results. Strether arrives in Paris certain of his task but also open to enjoying himself. He is uncertain about whether he wants to marry Mrs. Newsome, and he is uncertain about his role at home in Woollett, Massachusetts. Strether immediately has to remind himself to focus on his mission, or else he risks wandering too far into the temptations of the Parisian world. However, as soon as he begins to interact with Chad and Chad’s friends, he begins his own journey to a place of growth and deeper self-realization. He subconsciously desires this journey, one which, in the end, has a positive effect on him, although it leads him to fail as Mrs. Newsome’s ambassador.

Sarah Pocock, in contrast, is a married woman with direct orders from her mother. She is not in a transitional stage in her life and has come from a position of stability and permanence in Woollett. Married to a successful businessman, Sarah views her trip as a familial chore: to make her family whole and increase her family’s fortune. She does not have the personal insecurities of Strether, nor does she have his needs or his imagination. She is able to stay completely focused on the task assigned by her mother and is thus a much more effective, and in the end more successful, ambassador for Mrs. Newsome.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Compare and contrast the ways in which the three American men—Strether, Waymarsh, and Jim Pocock—are affected by their respective times in Paris.

2. In what ways does Strether change throughout the course of the novel? In what ways does he remain static?

3. At the end of The Ambassadors is Madame de Vionnet a tragic character or a vanquished villain?

4. Discuss the silent climax in the penultimate book of the novel (Book Eleventh). Is it an effective narrative technique? Why or why not?

5. Discuss the effect of James’s unique narrative technique on the tone or mood of the novel. How does he establish Strether as the novel’s center of consciousness without using a first-person voice?

6. Compare and contrast the characters of Miss Gostrey and Madame de Vionnet. In what ways are they similar, and in what ways are they different?

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