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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The gardens in The Ambassadors function like miniature Gardens of Eden. At many key points in the novel, characters enter gardens in which they are then enticed by or learn things that may lure away their innocence. Strether and Miss Gostrey have their first real chat in the garden of their hotel in England. Early on, Strether spends time in Luxembourg Gardens on the Parisian Left Bank. There, he first realizes the Babylon-like qualities of Paris and wonders if the city’s effect on his frame of mind will keep him from properly executing his assigned task of bringing Chad back to the United States. Later, Strether meets, and falls hard for, Madame de Vionnet, in Gloriani’s garden. Some critics equate Gloriani with the biblical serpent, the devil masquerading as a snake who enticed Adam and Eve with the apple. Gloriani represents the cultural splendor of Europe. At their meeting, both Gloriani and Madame de Vionnet impress Strether. For Strether, meeting those two characters is equivalent to tasting the fruit of knowledge: Strether will never be the same again. He loses his innocence and reticence. From that point on, Strether sees Paris through rose-colored glasses and not only begins to enjoy his stay but also tries to convince Chad to stay permanently as well.
Paris symbolizes the social, intellectual, and imaginative freedom of Europe. In Woollett, Massachusetts, provincial Americans, as epitomized by Mrs. Newsome, fear that Paris will be a corrupting force on Chad, the prodigal son. Throughout the novel, Woollett represents close-minded provincialism, and James contrast the small American town with the cosmopolitan European city. At the time, Parisian culture was thought to encourage sexual misconduct and vile relationships. Mrs. Newsome assumes—and fears—that Chad’s time in Paris will expose him to these forces. Strether remembers his first visit to Paris as a young man—and he fears that his return to the “vast bright Babylon,” as he calls Paris, will negatively affect him. He correctly realizes that his delight in Paris will permanently change him. But, as the novel progresses, Strether discovers that the trade-off is worth it. He enjoys Paris, and he welcomes the subsequent changes in his personality. In Woollett, social proprieties and a timid, young culture make people anxious and preoccupied. In Paris, however, Strether learns that he is able to live in the present moment, fully enjoying life.
Although no part of The Ambassadors takes place in Woollett, Massachusetts, throughout the novel the city figures as a symbol of the close-minded provincialism of small-town America. Initially, Strether is embarrassed to report to Miss Gostrey that he is from Woollett, because he identifies Woollett with all those things that oppose Parisian openness. Woollett, in the heart of New England, symbolizes the immature American cultural landscape. Timid, young American culture is so unsure of itself that it fears the influence of all outside forces, including the culturally rich Paris. Eventually, after Strether has experienced the positive effects of Parisian social freedom, he declares that Woollett has as a “female” culture—one characterized by gossiping, fearful women, like Sarah Pocock and Mrs. Newsome. He realizes that if Chad returns to Woollett, Chad will lose the refinement he has gained in Paris and become just one thing: a man out to make money. In this way, Woollett also represents the coarse, capitalistic nature of America in contrast to the artistic, aesthetic Parisian sensibility.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Ambassadors!