Lewis Lambert Strether has arrived in the English town of Chester. He is from Woollett, Massachusetts and he looks forward to meeting his old friend Mr. Waymarsh, a lawyer from Milrose, Connecticut. Both men are slightly past middle age; it has been awhile since they last saw each other, and Strether is aggravated by the fact that Waymarsh is far more "successful" in the world. Awaiting Waymarsh's arrival in the hotel lobby, Strether meets a woman who surprises him with her acute social sense. She seems to be somewhat acquainted with Waymarsh and also with the town of Chester. Maria Gostrey is an American who has spent much time in Europe. She easily spots the American newcomers and she assists them. The three Americans travel to London.
Strether has a "joyless" time with Waymarsh and he feels inferior to Waymarsh and Gostrey, whose are both more sociable and at ease. Waymarsh and Strether communicate by code, and the details of Strether's story regarding Mrs. Newsome only gradually comes out. Waymarsh continually expresses his disapproval of Strether's plan - though it is unclear precisely what Strether is planning to do.
Waymarsh and Strether will eventually continue to France. Strether and Gostrey will part ways though only briefly, for Gostrey promises Strether that she will come to Paris and lend her assistance. Towards the end of Book First, Strether and Gostrey have grown close and Waymarsh now stands as the outsider. Strether describes Waymarsh's "sacred rage" and general disinterest in worldly things. Strether and Gostrey intend to enjoy what time in London they have left.
From the beginning, the relationship between Strether and Gostrey is described in images and metaphors. Strether has arrived in Europe to do good, but he is rather clueless, naÔve, childlike. Gostrey plays a maternal role to Strether. Her name, 'Maria,' brings connotations of the Virgin Mary that are not inconsistent with the savior-role that Strether attempts to fulfill in the novel. At one point, Gostrey took Strether's hand and "led him forth into the world." In conversation with Strether, Gostrey describes herself using the Greek god Atlas as metaphor: "I bear on my back the huge load of our national consciousness, or, in other words - for it comes to that - of our nation itself. Of what is our nation composed but of the men and women individually on my shoulders?" Far more than a tour "guide," Gostrey becomes Strether's moral guide and offers to help him through the difficulties ahead.
The narrative structure prevents the story from reaching the point of clarity. We know very little about what Strether intends to do, only we know that this is not an ordinary vacation. Already, the theme of travel, expatriation and repatriation is presented. Clearly, James' concern with Americans in Europe is largely autobiographical. Perhaps most important, the social interactions between Gostrey, Waymarsh and Strether are incredibly complicated and almost ritualistic. Once in Paris, Strether will find that Society looms in an even more overwhelming manner. Strategy is an essential theme to the novel, as there is a serious conflict of interests. Strether arrives in Europe to defend Mrs. Newsome's interest but he will meet a good amount of resistance.
The suspense is not used for dramatic effect in Book First. Many questions are left unanswered, but this is more a result of the dense, psychologically focused style of Henry James. Details are not being withheld for the purpose of suspense. Rather, details have been suspended so that more primary details may be described. We gain a sense of Strether's inherent weakness well before we find out what his mission is. Gostrey is installed as a source of wisdom and fact (both for Strether and the reader) well before her genius is applied to the novel's central complications.
Thinking about his time in London, Strether cannot help but compare Gostrey to Mrs. Newsome, and also compare London to Boston and Woollett. In Gostrey's presence, Strether feels quite "imperfect." In conversation with Gostrey, Strether reveals that his wife and son had both died years ago, leaving him alone in a "grey middle desert." In London, Strether reveals more of the story to Gostrey: he has come to find Mrs. Newsome's son, Chadwick (Chad), and bring him home. Gostrey intuits that this is the "mission of separating [Chad] from the wicked woman." Strether has few facts but he is rather sure that this is the task at hand.
The Newsomes are described as a family of very dominant women. Mrs. Newsome and her daughter (Chad's sister) Sally Pocock are very firm. Mrs. Newsome, lives the life of an invalid, it seems. She is strong mentally but not at all physically. Hence, Strether has become her "ambassador" to Paris, charged with the task of saving Chad from harm. Perhaps, Chad might marry Mamie Pocock, who is the sister of his brother-in-law, Jim Pocock. Chad is to return home and work in the family business. Gostrey also hits on the fact that there is some sort of romance or potential for marriage between the widowed Mrs. Newsome and Strether. Though Strether does not view himself as a success, Gostrey helps him realize that he is the closest to a success as is to be found in Woollett. Strether realizes that he stands to lose "everything" if he fails in his task.
Strether and Waymarsh arrive in Paris and conduct some financial business at the bank. The two friends spend some time together and much of the previous uneasiness has dissipated. Strether is relieved when letters from Mrs. Newsome begin to arrive. At the same time, he is subject to the passions and power of the city of Paris. It has been a long time since Strether visited and he finds himself searching to see which buildings of his memory remain. Just as Paris charms Strether, Paris brings home the fact of Strether's age. He cannot help but wonder whether he is too old and too incompetent to fulfill the mission assigned.
In Book Second, we receive most of the crucial details of Strether's mission, and the story is not at all novel or unique. It does seem clear, however, that the psychological focus on Strether is going to be more important than the actual attempt to bring Chad back to Woollett. There is certainly a contrast between the European metropolis and the American town. Separate from this larger social issue, is the personal and private drama occurring within Strether's mind. There is a metaphor of the drama on stage as a symbol of society and social engagements. Like actors in costume, socialites pose, pretend, and play. Here, there is an added dimension to the performances: Strether's thoughts are on display. We learn of his copious insecurities and his ambitious hopes.
Gostrey is largely opposite to Sterther, though they get along with each other very well. Strether focuses on the essence of the thing, while Gsotrey wants facts. Strether understands people within the context of relationships. Gostrey seeks people as 'types.' Gostrey hopes to shield Strether from the fall-out of his expectations: it is already implied that Strether is dear to Mrs. Newsome so long as he is able to do what she requests. It also seems that Mrs. Newsome has more than a few potential ambassadors that she can send, should Strether fail. Finally, the letters to and from Mrs. Newsome are an important motif in the novel. The letters establish the connection between Strether and his obligation, his native country, and his employer. The letters may or may not be factual and/or punctual. The punctual stream of letters and money from Mrs. Newsome assure Strether that he will not be stranded in Paris nor deserted in Woollett. Strether's obligation is to send factual information - and so, he must discover the facts. It is hardly an understatement when Strether says that he risks losing "everything" should he fail. Even his psychological condition is highly sensitive to his self-perceived success and failure.