Strether’s experiences, observations, thoughts, and reflections essentially compose The Ambassadors. Even though the novel is not told in Strether’s voice, his point of view fills the work and he is its central consciousness. Each event gets filtered through Strether’s eyes and mind. Similarly, every comment uttered by the narrator reflects Strether’s impressions and biases. For these reasons, Strether is the most important character in the novel. But although Strether appears in every facet of the story, he has very little influence over the other characters. He tries, often nobly, to motivate the characters, as when he attempts to convince Sarah Pocock of Madame de Vionnet’s worthiness or when he tells Chad that he should remain in Europe. Ultimately, however, Strether fails to spur the others to act or behave as he wants them to. In the end, Strether himself changes the most, as the world he observes influences and affects him.
Over the course of The Ambassadors, Strether transforms from a close-minded puritan from a small town in the United States to a broad-minded man with a European, cosmopolitan outlook. As the novel begins, Strether is unable to enjoy the experience of his own life and cannot act confidently of his own volition. He arrives in Paris ready to blindly follow Mrs. Newsome’s orders. He finds himself afraid to diverge from this burdensome task in any small way. Throughout his time in Europe, however, Strether changes greatly. His conversations with Miss Gostrey teach him to see the world in a European way. Gradually he gains confidence, learns to trust his own judgment, and realizes that his priorities have been wrong. Strether leaves Europe not because he has renounced the freedom and openness he discovered there. Rather, Strether leaves because he believes himself too old and too set in his ways to give up the only life he has ever known—the small-town life of Woollett, Massachusetts. Strether’s greatest disappointment is his failure to convince Chad to stay in Europe. Chad, however, has an irreversible and inestimable influence on Strether, who will never see the world, and especially not Woollett, Massachusetts, the same again.