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The following Sunday, Chad arranges for Strether to meet
his female friends, Madame de Vionnet and her daughter, Jeanne.
He plans to take Strether to a party held in the garden of the famous Parisian
sculptor Gloriani. Strether anticipates the event with great curiosity.
Once there, the garden and the artistic, fashionable guests make
a strong impression on Strether, and he begins to wonder what impression
he is making on them. Strether wonders if he seems acceptable to
the Parisians present, as well as to Chad and his expatriate friends.
When little Bilham nears, he longs to ask him bluntly if he passes
the test but cannot summon the courage. Instead, Strether asks Bilham
about the other guests and whether the de Vionnets have arrived.
Bilham says that they have returned to the city, but he is not sure
yet if they are at the party. Strether asks Bilham about the “virtuous
attachment” Chad has with these women. Bilham, cryptically, calls
the attachment “magnificent.” Not sure what to do with this information,
Strether inquires if Madame de Vionnet’s husband is still living.
When he learns that he is, Strether finalizes his assumption that
Chad must be in love with the younger de Vionnet. Just at that point,
Chad’s friend Miss Barrace arrives and reiterates Bilham’s obscure
but positive remarks. Strether begins to ask more questions, but
then Chad appears.
Chad takes Strether to meet Madame de Vionnet. She speaks
a unique style of English, which Strether finds rather charming.
He thinks too that she looks rather young. She is dressed in black,
looks thin, and smiles naturally. Together, they walk to a garden
bench and sit. Strether tries to imagine a situation in which he
could have met Madame de Vionnet in Woollett while they discuss
simple things, like how much one has heard about the other. Suddenly,
a couple approaches the bench, and a duchess whisks Madame de Vionnet
away. Before Strether can process anything about their conversation,
Bilham appears. Inspired by his surroundings, Strether begins to
speak to Bilham about his experiences in Paris and in Chad’s world
thus far. He also describes his regrets and disappointments. In
a speech filled with sudden passion and sage advice, Strether urges
Bilham to live and do all he can with the time he has before it
is too late. He also explains that it is too late for him to follow
his own advice.
At that moment, Chad, with a young Jeanne de Vionnet on
his arm, approaches the two men. She is wearing white and is very pretty.
Jeanne reports to Strether that her mother wants him to visit her.
Again, their conversation is cut short. Chad pulls the girl away from
Strether, and he is left again with Bilham, who soon departs. Miss
Gostrey then joins Strether on the bench. He informs her that Chad’s
lover is the daughter. She, in turn, offers herself as Strether’s guide
in specific matters concerning Madame de Vionnet. While the rest
of the party heads inside for tea, Miss Gostrey tells Strether that she
attended school in Geneva with Madame de Vionnet twenty-three years
ago. She also explains that the madame has been living apart from
her brutish husband for years. Finally, Miss Gostrey mentions that
she suspects that Madame de Vionnet wants Chad to marry her daughter.
The next morning, Chad visits Strether, and Strether pointedly asks
Chad directly if he is engaged to Jeanne. Chad responds that he is
not. He then tells Strether that he really wants Strether to become well
acquainted with Madame de Vionnet. Strether agrees, on the condition
that Chad “surrenders” himself to Strether from that point on. Chad
says he will.
The fifth book lets James continue to compare Europe with
America but introduces a new lens through which to view the two
places: society and social interaction. Strether is thrust into
the heart of Parisian society at the garden party, which gives him
the opportunity to compare it with Woollett society. His anxiety
about whether he fits in emphasizes the glamorous outlook with which
he views Paris. He clearly enjoys the party and the way people socialize
and interact with one another. Even though Gloriani comes off as
a caricature of a “successful artist” and has no sincere interaction
with Strether, Strether finds the man charming. In addition, he
likes the idea that Chad would be in the same social coterie as
such a successful and artistic man. The party helps Strether discover
a whole new level on which to be delighted with Paris and, in this
way, helps crystallize Strether’s good opinion of Europe. He tries
to imagine meeting Madame de Vionnet in Woollett but realizes that
he could never meet her there—because she is entirely different
from anything American culture could produce. What she is, however,
is wonderful, and he cannot help but be charmed by her. By the time
he finds himself alone with Bilham, his appreciation of Paris has
blossomed into something resembling full-blown love.
As American men in the prime of life, Bilham and Chad
represent younger versions of Strether. Because Strether regrets
his life’s failures, particularly how little he actually lived or
experienced life as a young man, he hopes to impart his hard-won
wisdom on Bilham and Chad. If possible, he wants to prevent them
from making the same mistakes he made at their age—and to save them
from experiencing the negative emotions Strether now feels when
he looks back over his own life. As he sits at the party, feeling
happy to be in Paris, Strether becomes inspired to impart this love
and these lessons to Bilham. He urges Bilham to “live” not only
because he finds himself “living” much more fully in Paris, but
also because he realizes that this way of life has made him a great
deal happier. But in advising Bilham, Strether is also speaking
to himself. You should have lived, he tells himself, and you must
try and live every single second you still can. This realization
colors the rest of Strether’s actions throughout the remainder of The
Ambassadors. His open-mindedness, his eagerness to understand,
and his willingness to develop relationships with various people
can all be seen as the byproducts of this new perspective.
Formally, Strether’s realization acts as the novel’s first
climax, or moment of great intensity and drama. Here, as elsewhere,
James lets Strether describe his experiences, rather than using
an impartial narrator. This narrative choice increases the moment’s
drama, because Strether clearly struggles to articulate his new
consciousness and life lessons to Bilham. He speaks slowly, “with
full pauses and straight dashes.” He tries to put this profound
disappointment and startling fresh outlook into words. The dénouement,
or tidying up of the messiness of the climax, will take place in
the sixth book. James repeats this structure in the penultimate
and final books of The Ambassadors: the second
climax occurs in the eleventh book and its dénouement in the twelfth.
The first climax allows James to demarcate the sum of the small
changes Strether has been experiencing throughout the first half
of the novel. While in Europe, Strether’s perspectives on propriety,
on society, and on Europe have changed. Now, in one theatrical moment,
he presents his changed life view to Bilham. He also foreshadows
the end of the novel, at which point Strether leaves Europe and
returns to Woollett.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Ambassadors!