Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The Importance of Place
Throughout the novel, the narrator constantly locates events in specific places, and characters repeatedly refer to specific locations. James foregrounds the importance of place right from the beginning by emphasizing how different Strether feels in Europe than in the United States. Upon meeting in England, Miss Gostrey tells Strether that she has met his friend Waymarsh in Milrose, Connecticut. Likewise, Strether explains that he comes from Woollett, Massachusetts. The specificity of location is a form of shorthand for the characters: where someone comes from gives all sorts of information about that person’s likes, dislikes, habits, and behavior. Miss Gostrey assumes that Chad has a virtuous relationship with a woman simply by hearing that Chad has gone to Cannes, France. Had the relationship not been virtuous, she reasons, Chad would not have been able to travel to such an exclusive place. She similarly reassures Strether about little Bilham by explaining, “he’s all right—he’s one of us” (that is, an American). In fact, the importance of place and location spurs the novel’s plot: Mrs. Newsome sends Strether to rescue Chad precisely because of where he is living. The family in Woollett worries about Chad because he’s living in Paris, a city known at the time for its debauchery and immorality.
The Lived vs. Unlived Life
As a character, Strether represents the struggle to live life to the fullest extent. When Strether first meets Miss Gostrey, he articulates his inability to fully appreciate the moments of his life. He feels as though he has suffered from this inability throughout his entire youth and adulthood, and he regrets having missed out on significant life experiences. Now middle-aged, Strether fears that he will never be able to live fully in the moment. But, in Paris, he begins to experience truly saturated moments. Thanks to the frank advice and forthright guidance of Miss Gostrey, Strether learns to let go of the pain of regret and begins to live in the present. In this way, he embodies the theme of the full, richly lived life versus the staid, boring unlived life that is central to The Ambassadors. Strether originally goes to Paris with the intention of helping Chad fulfill his potential—as a businessman in Woollett. Yet, Strether eventually feels that Chad would lead a richer life by staying in Paris.
Strether further embodies the theme of the lived versus unlived life through his interactions with other characters. Once Strether realizes the benefits of truly living life, he begins to lecture such characters as little Bilham about enjoying their youth. In Gloriani’s garden, at the end of the first part of the novel, Strether corners little Bilham and tells him, with earnest optimism, to live life to the fullest. Strether believes he has missed his opportunity to experience all of what life has to offer, and he wants his young friends to learn from his mistakes. Nevertheless, Strether fails to convince Chad to stay in Europe with Madame de Vionnet. He blames Chad’s lack of imagination for his desire to return to the United States and take over the family business. Ultimately, Strether leaves Europe as well, having decided that life has in fact passed him by.
The American Abroad
After the Civil War, the American economy flourished, allowing the wealthy to travel to other places, particularly Europe. The American abroad became a popular character in literature. Henry James himself was an American abroad, and much of his writing explores the American experience in foreign lands. Just about every character in The Ambassadors comes from the United States and now lives in Europe. The manner in which each character responds to the European environment speaks to the larger experience of Americans abroad. For instance, Jim Pocock wants to see the vice and opulence for which Paris has become famous in the United States. In contrast, Waymarsh hates Paris because it fails to offer him what he likes about his American home. These two characters represent opposite sides of the same American provincialism. Neither character is able to appreciate what is truly great about Paris: its confident, age-old culture and its reliance on cultural—as opposed to monetary—values.
Unlike the other characters, Strether represents the best type of American abroad. Strether learns how to see Europe through the experienced expatriate Miss Gostrey, herself an American abroad. He appreciates Paris for itself and for its difference from Woollett, Massachusetts. Strether represents the kind of American James thought he was: an American capable of appreciating the complex and rich culture of Europe. But, like James, Strether also took the wisdom gained from the venerable Old World and transferred it back to America. Strether leaves Europe at the end of the novel a changed man, and he returns to the United States with a new perspective.
Both Strether and the narrator use water imagery to describe female characters, particularly the way Strether relates to these women. After Miss Gostrey has gone away and left Strether to digest many significant events on his own, he finds that he no longer depends on her help to properly understand the events he witnesses. He then refers to her as one “pail” among many in his life, as one of the “tributaries” from which the water of meaning he seeks to gather flows. Likewise, he describes Mrs. Newsome as a large iceberg, as if to suggest both her firm, stubborn, insistence on certain ideas and to accentuate her geographic distance from the matters at hand. Finally, he refers to Madame de Vionnet as a boat on water that attracts him. Later, as Strether becomes more involved with Madame de Vionnet, he remarks that if her boat sinks, he will sink as well, because he has agreed to help her keep Chad and thus is “in her boat.” Finally, in the climax of the novel, Madame de Vionnet and Chad appear in an actual boat, exposing the true nature of their relationship to Strether. In this way, water and water-related imagery coalesce to serve as a constant reminder of Strether’s complex and varied relationships to the women of the novel.
The similarity between the names Maria (Gostrey) and Marie (de Vionnet) suggests that these women function as altered versions of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ. According to the tenets of Christianity, the Virgin Mary symbolizes life, purity, holiness, and wisdom. Throughout The Ambassadors, Maria Gostrey and Marie de Vionnet serve as important teachers and wisdom givers, for Strether and for others. Miss Gostrey, for instance, makes her living as a guide to Europe for Americans. Through her eyes, Strether learns to properly assess the culture of Paris. Likewise, Strether imagines that Chad’s growth as a person is due to the nurturing influence of a motherlike figure. Strether sees Madame de Vionnet as a paragon of virtue and thus imagines that she has been the constructive force in Chad’s maturity. His discovery of the immoral relationship between Madame de Vionnet and Chad so shocks Strether that he decides to leave Europe. Strether also rejects Miss Gostrey’s offer of love. His faith in the purity of women has been so shaken that he feels he can no longer trust even his good friend, Miss Gostrey.
The gardens in The Ambassadors function like miniature Gardens of Eden. At many key points in the novel, characters enter gardens in which they are then enticed by or learn things that may lure away their innocence. Strether and Miss Gostrey have their first real chat in the garden of their hotel in England. Early on, Strether spends time in Luxembourg Gardens on the Parisian Left Bank. There, he first realizes the Babylon-like qualities of Paris and wonders if the city’s effect on his frame of mind will keep him from properly executing his assigned task of bringing Chad back to the United States. Later, Strether meets, and falls hard for, Madame de Vionnet, in Gloriani’s garden. Some critics equate Gloriani with the biblical serpent, the devil masquerading as a snake who enticed Adam and Eve with the apple. Gloriani represents the cultural splendor of Europe. At their meeting, both Gloriani and Madame de Vionnet impress Strether. For Strether, meeting those two characters is equivalent to tasting the fruit of knowledge: Strether will never be the same again. He loses his innocence and reticence. From that point on, Strether sees Paris through rose-colored glasses and not only begins to enjoy his stay but also tries to convince Chad to stay permanently as well.
Paris symbolizes the social, intellectual, and imaginative freedom of Europe. In Woollett, Massachusetts, provincial Americans, as epitomized by Mrs. Newsome, fear that Paris will be a corrupting force on Chad, the prodigal son. Throughout the novel, Woollett represents close-minded provincialism, and James contrast the small American town with the cosmopolitan European city. At the time, Parisian culture was thought to encourage sexual misconduct and vile relationships. Mrs. Newsome assumes—and fears—that Chad’s time in Paris will expose him to these forces. Strether remembers his first visit to Paris as a young man—and he fears that his return to the “vast bright Babylon,” as he calls Paris, will negatively affect him. He correctly realizes that his delight in Paris will permanently change him. But, as the novel progresses, Strether discovers that the trade-off is worth it. He enjoys Paris, and he welcomes the subsequent changes in his personality. In Woollett, social proprieties and a timid, young culture make people anxious and preoccupied. In Paris, however, Strether learns that he is able to live in the present moment, fully enjoying life.
Although no part of The Ambassadors takes place in Woollett, Massachusetts, throughout the novel the city figures as a symbol of the close-minded provincialism of small-town America. Initially, Strether is embarrassed to report to Miss Gostrey that he is from Woollett, because he identifies Woollett with all those things that oppose Parisian openness. Woollett, in the heart of New England, symbolizes the immature American cultural landscape. Timid, young American culture is so unsure of itself that it fears the influence of all outside forces, including the culturally rich Paris. Eventually, after Strether has experienced the positive effects of Parisian social freedom, he declares that Woollett has as a “female” culture—one characterized by gossiping, fearful women, like Sarah Pocock and Mrs. Newsome. He realizes that if Chad returns to Woollett, Chad will lose the refinement he has gained in Paris and become just one thing: a man out to make money. In this way, Woollett also represents the coarse, capitalistic nature of America in contrast to the artistic, aesthetic Parisian sensibility.
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