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.