The Ambassadors

The Aesthetics of Pleasure and Psychological Repression in Henry James' The Ambassadors College

‘My genius’, Henry James wrote to William Dean Howells in 1900, ‘I may…say, absolutely thrives [in ‘The Ambassadors’] - it is ‘exquisitely ‘pure’, exquisitely everything’. ‘The Ambassadors’ (1903) was considered by Henry James to be his crowning work, embodying his ideal of the novel as ‘art’. Much of the artistic nature of the novel arises from the way in which ‘language deflects and serves’ the ‘insistent desires’ of its focalisor, Lambert Strether, and as a result creates ‘sensual pleasure’. Strether is a character who is trapped by the memory of his wasted youth, and who desires to achieve ‘the common unattainable art of taking things as they [come]’. It is this desire, to ‘live in the moment’, that pervades the novel and inhibits his secondary desires for Mrs Newsome and, most importantly, Madame de Vionnet. Henry James’ language works to create aesthetic pleasure by exploring these ‘insistent desires’ the repression thereof on a psychological level.

A common psychoanalytical theme, present in the work of both Freud and Erikson, is that of originology. That is, the idea that all psychologically issues that manifest in adult life have their roots in childhood. For Strether, the cause of his adulthood repression could be...

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