This place and these impressions . . . of Chad and of people I’ve seen at his place—well, have had their abundant message for me. . . . [T]he right time now is yours. The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have. . . . .Of course I don’t take you for a fool, or I shouldn’t be addressing you thus awfully. . . . Live!
This quotation occurs during the novel’s first climax, in the middle of Book Fifth. A climax is the most dramatic moment in a book, the point at which various themes culminate, tensions peak, and at least some characters are forever altered—the climax is a point of no return. In this early climax, Strether finally articulates all that he has been learning, seeing, digesting, and doing in Paris. According to legend, Henry James heard this speech almost verbatim during a party he attended. Later, James called this speech the “germ” for the entire novel The Ambassadors. At a similar garden party, James overheard his good friend, the writer William Dean Howells, speak similar words to the younger Jonathan Sturges. From this experience, James felt inspired to create a fictionalized account of an older man, one who has not lived life to its full potential, who realizes what he has been missing, and who expresses this newfound wisdom to a younger friend. The older man, in this scene, is Strether. The younger man is little Bilham, Strether’s friend and surrogate son.
Throughout the first half of the novel, Strether has grown increasingly open and at ease in Europe; this quotation demonstrates the openness and ease. Paris has helped Strether not only to relax but also has inspired him to develop a true enjoyment of the details of life and to reflect on his past, a time at which Strether was unable to truly enjoy life. Before speaking these words to Bilham at Gloriani’s garden party, Strether meets Madame de Vionnet and assumes she is Chad’s close friend. Afterward, he makes the brief acquaintance of Jeanne de Vionnet and, finding her elegant and good mannered, approves of her as an appropriate lover for Chad. Thanks to these experiences, Strether finds himself in a positive state of mind. When he ends up face to face with the younger Bilham, Strether feels inspired to express, explicitly, his new optimistic views. This moment is the first instance of Strether explicitly commenting on his internal changes. Although Strether continues to change and grow in the second half of the novel, he never forgets the feeling than one should “live.” Even though he feels it may be “too late” for him, much of what Strether does for the rest of the book is “live,” freely and openly, in a manner that would be impossible for him in Woollett.