He had never before, to his knowledge, had present to him relics, of any special dignity, of a private order. . . . [These objects] marked Madame de Vionnet’s apartment as something quite different from Miss Gostrey’s little museum of bargains and from Chad’s lovely home; he recognized it as founded much more on old accumulations that had possibly from time to time shrunken than on any contemporary method of acquisition or form of curiosity.
At the start of Book Sixth, Strether joins Chad in a visit to Madame de Vionnet’s apartment. During this visit, he begins fully to notice the differences between American culture, American culture in Europe, and European culture. In a way, his feelings about Madame de Vionnet’s rooms as compared to Miss Gostrey’s rooms serve as a metaphor for the difference he observes between Americans and Europeans in Europe. When Strether first enters Miss Gostrey’s room, pages before the above incident, he is bewildered by the ornate crowdedness of her quarters. His Woollett-born puritan ethic finds fault. He thinks the rooms are oppressive, because they are “charged with possessions,” an “empire of things.” He finds Miss Gostrey’s decorations to be a “form of curiosity” and feels her taste speaks negatively of her desire to acquire, to collect, to horde. This clashes with Strether’s puritan idealization of the renunciation of the “lust of the eyes and pride of life.” When he enters Madame de Vionnet’s home, however, he finds a different brand of acquisition. Madame de Vionnet’s possessions speak not of a “contemporary acquisition” but of an ancient brand.
Madame de Vionnet’s apartment symbolizes Europe and the grandeur of European culture. The objects that decorate the walls are not objects collected to declare a personal voice. Rather, they are “old accumulations” that demarcate her position in an ancient line, in a French tradition much greater than herself. Madame de Vionnet’s possessions say more about her lineage and her place in European tradition and genealogy than they do about her own desire to define herself. Unlike Miss Gostrey, who decorates based on taste, surrounding herself in things that speak to who she thinks she is, Madame de Vionnet’s decorations are inherited, not chosen by her but chosen for her at birth. While Miss Gostrey could redecorate, Madame de Vionnet’s decorations are as essential to her being as something like her nationality or genetic makeup. In realizing this, Strether begins to perceive the immaturity of American culture. He begins to see what can be learned from Europe, a place where the “self-made man” is rare, and not idealized. Madame de Vionnet’s rooms let Strether begin to understand the reality and profundity of the differences between America and Europe, Americans and Europeans.