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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Throughout the novel, the narrator constantly locates events in specific places, and characters repeatedly refer to specific locations. James foregrounds the importance of place right from the beginning by emphasizing how different Strether feels in Europe than in the United States. Upon meeting in England, Miss Gostrey tells Strether that she has met his friend Waymarsh in Milrose, Connecticut. Likewise, Strether explains that he comes from Woollett, Massachusetts. The specificity of location is a form of shorthand for the characters: where someone comes from gives all sorts of information about that person’s likes, dislikes, habits, and behavior. Miss Gostrey assumes that Chad has a virtuous relationship with a woman simply by hearing that Chad has gone to Cannes, France. Had the relationship not been virtuous, she reasons, Chad would not have been able to travel to such an exclusive place. She similarly reassures Strether about little Bilham by explaining, “he’s all right—he’s one of us” (that is, an American). In fact, the importance of place and location spurs the novel’s plot: Mrs. Newsome sends Strether to rescue Chad precisely because of where he is living. The family in Woollett worries about Chad because he’s living in Paris, a city known at the time for its debauchery and immorality.
As a character, Strether represents the struggle to live life to the fullest extent. When Strether first meets Miss Gostrey, he articulates his inability to fully appreciate the moments of his life. He feels as though he has suffered from this inability throughout his entire youth and adulthood, and he regrets having missed out on significant life experiences. Now middle-aged, Strether fears that he will never be able to live fully in the moment. But, in Paris, he begins to experience truly saturated moments. Thanks to the frank advice and forthright guidance of Miss Gostrey, Strether learns to let go of the pain of regret and begins to live in the present. In this way, he embodies the theme of the full, richly lived life versus the staid, boring unlived life that is central to The Ambassadors. Strether originally goes to Paris with the intention of helping Chad fulfill his potential—as a businessman in Woollett. Yet, Strether eventually feels that Chad would lead a richer life by staying in Paris.
Strether further embodies the theme of the lived versus unlived life through his interactions with other characters. Once Strether realizes the benefits of truly living life, he begins to lecture such characters as little Bilham about enjoying their youth. In Gloriani’s garden, at the end of the first part of the novel, Strether corners little Bilham and tells him, with earnest optimism, to live life to the fullest. Strether believes he has missed his opportunity to experience all of what life has to offer, and he wants his young friends to learn from his mistakes. Nevertheless, Strether fails to convince Chad to stay in Europe with Madame de Vionnet. He blames Chad’s lack of imagination for his desire to return to the United States and take over the family business. Ultimately, Strether leaves Europe as well, having decided that life has in fact passed him by.
After the Civil War, the American economy flourished, allowing the wealthy to travel to other places, particularly Europe. The American abroad became a popular character in literature. Henry James himself was an American abroad, and much of his writing explores the American experience in foreign lands. Just about every character in The Ambassadors comes from the United States and now lives in Europe. The manner in which each character responds to the European environment speaks to the larger experience of Americans abroad. For instance, Jim Pocock wants to see the vice and opulence for which Paris has become famous in the United States. In contrast, Waymarsh hates Paris because it fails to offer him what he likes about his American home. These two characters represent opposite sides of the same American provincialism. Neither character is able to appreciate what is truly great about Paris: its confident, age-old culture and its reliance on cultural—as opposed to monetary—values.
Unlike the other characters, Strether represents the best type of American abroad. Strether learns how to see Europe through the experienced expatriate Miss Gostrey, herself an American abroad. He appreciates Paris for itself and for its difference from Woollett, Massachusetts. Strether represents the kind of American James thought he was: an American capable of appreciating the complex and rich culture of Europe. But, like James, Strether also took the wisdom gained from the venerable Old World and transferred it back to America. Strether leaves Europe at the end of the novel a changed man, and he returns to the United States with a new perspective.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Ambassadors!