Mr. Lambert Strether is from Woollett, Massachusetts and he has come to Europe at the request of his employer, Mrs. Newsome. Mrs. Newsome's son, Chad, has been in Paris for a long time and the Newsomes are worried that Chad will never return home. Strether is to bring Chad back home. Despite the assistance of his old friend, Waymarsh, and his new friend, Maria Gostrey, Strether is unable to fulfill this task. He is Mrs. Newsome's "ambassador," sent to Paris to protect her interests.
Strether arrives in Paris and his trip becomes a return to his own youth. He enjoys spending time with Chad's young friends, Miss Barrace and Little John Bilham. Strether is charmed by the Countess, Madame de Vionnet, a married woman with whom Chad has begun a relationship. Quite impressed by the Countess, Strether agrees to help her as well - though he does not know how he will be able to appease both Mrs. Newsome and the Countess. From the very beginning, Strether's plan is doomed to fail. He hopes to convince Mrs. Newsome that the Countess has been a positive influence on Chad and that Chad has changed for the better. Waymarsh gives Strether very sound advice: Strether should either follow his directions from Mrs. Newsome, or give up altogether. Strether rejects this advice and tries to find the compromise between two conflicting positions. Just when Chad seems willing to co back home to Woollett, it is Strether who convinces the young man to stay in Paris for a little while longer.
Strether's fate quickly runs downhill. Mrs. Newsome sends her daughter, Sarah Pocock (Chad's sister), to bring Chad home. Sarah arrives with her husband, Jim Pocock, and her sister-in-law, Mamie Pocock. It is suggested that Chad will return home to marry Mamie Pocock and continue in the family business: advertising. Unlike Strether, Sarah Pocock is not amused by Society and its trappings, nor is she impressed with the Countess, nor is she inspired by the architecture and atmosphere of Paris. Sarah intends to do her job and she does it quickly. It does not take very long for Chad to get himself ready to leave Paris. His condition to Sarah is that he will agree to return home if Strether gives him the word. Sarah turns to Strether, considering that the task has been completed - for how could Strether refuse? This is, however, exactly what Strether does.
Fearing that Chad will return home and live a miserable life in business, Strether looks at his own miserable life and is unable to condemn Chad to a similar fate. Strether knows that Chad will return home regardless of what he says. Still, Strether does not want the blot on his conscience. This move is costly for Strether: he will likely lose his job with the Newsomes. The possibility of his marriage with Mrs. Newsome is nullified as well. In sum, Strether, a man with very little money, has lost the opportunity to get a good deal more. In the end of the novel, the only solace that he has is in knowing that he has been true to his ideals and has gained nothing for himself.