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Lambert Strether, an American from Woollett, Massachusetts, arrives
in Chester, England. At the hotel desk, he learns that his old friend
Waymarsh has not arrived. Instead, Strether meets a young American
lady named Maria Gostrey who claims to know Waymarsh. Quickly becoming
friends, Strether explains to Miss Gostrey that he has been sent
to Europe by his fiancée, Mrs. Newsome, to fetch her son, Chad.
In Woollett, everyone believes that Chad has become romantically
involved with an inappropriate woman and refuses to come home so
that they remain together. Strether’s mission, as Mrs. Newsome’s
trusted ambassador, is to convince Chad to come back to Woollett,
where he is needed by the family business. Strether confidently
believes that his mission is noble and necessary. If he succeeds,
he and Mrs. Newsome will be married. Miss Gostrey suggests that
Strether wait to judge Chad until after Strether has seen this lover
with his own eyes. Throughout the novel, Strether relies on Miss
Gostrey for confidence-boosting advice.
Strether, Waymarsh, and Miss Gostrey head to Paris, where Chad
lives. When they arrive, they learn Chad is away. While they wait
for Chad’s return, Miss Gostrey leads the two older men on sightseeing
trips, and Strether begins to enjoy his time in Europe. Strether
visits Chad’s apartment and notices an unfamiliar man lingering
on the balcony. Strether makes this man’s acquaintance and learns
that he goes by the name “little Bilham.” A friend of Chad’s, Bilham
takes care of Chad’s house when Chad is traveling. Miss Gostrey
suggests to Strether that Bilham is operating under Chad’s “instructions.”
Regardless, Strether finds Bilham charming and invites the young
man to the opera. Bilham, however, does not show. Instead, a stranger
enters the box. Strether realizes that this new arrival is Chad
Newsome. Chad has returned from his travels quite a changed man.
After the opera, Strether tells Chad why he has come to
Paris. However, as he speaks, Strether finds himself less certain
of his stance. Chad, once callow and juvenile, now seems confident
and restrained. His new personality impresses Strether, who wonders what—or
who—has caused Chad’s transformation. Chad asks Strether to stay
and meet his close friends, a mother and a daughter, who are arriving
in a few days time. Strether, wondering if one of these women has
been the impetus for Chad’s improvement, and assuming the daughter
to be Chad’s lover, agrees to stay. Meanwhile, Bilham convinces
Strether that Chad has a “virtuous attachment”—and that Chad’s relationship
with the mysterious woman is innocent. Strether eventually meets
the women, Madame de Vionnet and her daughter, Jeanne, at a high
society party, but he does not see them long enough to cement an
impression. After the brief introduction to Madame de Vionnet, Strether
finds himself alone with little Bilham. Strether takes the opportunity
to offer Bilham some sage advice: live all you can before it is
too late. This advice exposes Strether’s own change since coming
to Europe. In Paris, he feels renewed, young again, doubly alive.
Over time, Strether comes to think that Madame de Vionnet
has been the good influence on Chad. Strether eventually learns
that Maria Gostrey and Marie de Vionnet went to school together
as young women but have not seen each other for many years. When Chad
arranges for the marriage of Jeanne to another man, Strether realizes
that Madame de Vionnet is Chad’s reason for staying in Paris. Strether
surprises himself by promising Madame de Vionnet that he will try
and keep Chad near her. As if aware of this promise, Mrs. Newsome
writes Strether and demands that he end his tenure as her ambassador.
Her ultimatum: bring Chad home or return to Massachusetts by the
next ship. Even though his refusal to return home puts his marriage
to Mrs. Newsome in jeopardy, Strether longs to stay in Europe. In
a complete reversal, Chad declares that he is ready to return to
Woollett, but Strether begs him to stay in Paris. Almost immediately,
Mrs. Newsome sends a new shipment of ambassadors: her daughter,
Sarah Pocock, along with her husband, Jim, and Jim’s sister, Mamie,
who Mrs. Newsome hopes will marry Chad. Strether worries that Sarah
will contradict his reports on Chad’s progress and on Madame de
Vionnet’s worthiness to Mrs. Newsome.
Initially, Strether believes that Sarah is as charmed
by Chad’s Parisian life as Strether was. But soon, Sarah meets Strether
face to face and reiterates Mrs. Newsome’s negative views of the
situation. She demands Strether’s complete compliance in convincing
Chad to go home to Woollett as soon as she, Waymarsh, Jim, and Mamie return
from a leisure trip to Switzerland. Waymarsh and Sarah are acutely
disappointed in Strether. While the others are away, Strether takes
a day-trip himself to the French countryside. There, he coincidentally
spots Chad and Madame de Vionnet riding together on a small boat.
All at once, he understands: their relationship is unmistakably
intimate and obviously lacking in virtue. But, even though Chad
and Madame de Vionnet were deceitful, Strether still feels that their
involvement has improved Chad as a person.
Afterward, when Strether visits Madame de Vionnet, she
seems defeated and convinced that Chad will return to the United
States. She insists that she has wanted Strether all along, to which
Strether replies that she has had him. Nevertheless, Strether suggests
that he can still help her keep Chad. However, after Chad stays
away from them both for an entire week, Strether’s resolve begins
to erode. When Strether finally confronts Chad, the young man speaks
only of plans for improving the family business in Woollett. His
desire to return home is unambiguous. Even though Strether thinks
that Chad would be more fulfilled in Europe with Madame de Vionnet, he
cannot convince Chad to stay. Instead, Strether goes to visit Miss Gostrey,
at which point her long-gestating love for him is made obvious.
She makes what amounts to a marriage proposal to Strether, but he
feels he cannot accept it. Even as he realizes that, compared to
Europe, his life in Woollett will be bland, Strether chooses to
return to the United States.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Ambassadors!