The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors Themes

Strategy and Success

The very title of the novel - The Ambassadors - refers to the game of strategy that is central to the story's plot. The ambassadors are Lambert Strether and Sarah Pocock, namely. Though other characters play auxiliary roles (Jim and Mamie Pocock, Waymarsh), these two have been expressly assigned to the task of recovering Chad Newsome from the dangers of Parisian bohemia. In Mrs. Newsome's service, both Strether and Sarah must use strategy if they are to succeed. Strether fails and Sarah succeeds.

Setting aside the questions of idealism and motive, the argument remains that Strether fails for lack of strategy - he fails to do Mrs. Newsome's bidding and then, when he has decided to advocate for the opposition, as it were, Strether fails again. When Strether argues for Woollett, Chad wants to remain in Paris. When Strether comes around and begins arguing for Paris, Chad is hesitant and cautious, eventually returning home despite Strether's advice.

Sarah arrived in Paris determined to return home with her brother, Chad. While Strether dabbled in French high society and enjoyed his time with Chad's new friends, Sarah took the strategic position referred to as "parti pris" (an obstinate position based upon a prejudgment). Sarah refused to compromise; she would not budge; her position was fixed and her demeanor was hard and "crystalline." Her demeanor matched her determination.

Strether, on the other hand, thought that he might out-charm the charmers. He might perform so well in Parisian society that his newfound popularity and influence would allow him to press upon Chad. Instead, Strether was charmed and easily won over. Bilham and Miss Barrace were successful in their strategy: Strether anticipated a positive change in Chad - having been told that, in his time in Paris, Chad had changed for the better. Chad does such an expert job of bringing Strether to his side that midway through the novel, when Chad is at last ready to return home, Strether relinquishes the victory and bids Chad to enjoy Paris for a while longer - for Strether, himself, now wants to enjoy Paris for a while longer.

In a limited sense, Madame de Vionnet is strategic. She knows that Chad must inevitably return home. She charms Strether into committing to "saving" her alongside Chad. This is an impossible mission, of course. De Vionnet is already married; furthermore, it is unlikely that she could ever join Chad in Woollett, Mass. When Strether commits to helping de Vionnet, he puts himself in the unfortunate predicament of serving two inimical masters: Mrs. Newsome and Madame de Vionnet. De Vionnet knows that she cannot win in an ultimate sense - but she is able to buy more time with Chad. At a certain point, given her success with Strether, de Vionnet hopes to charm Sarah Pocock in a similar way. Perhaps in this manner, the Countess might have charmed each ambassador that was sent, and having done this, she could have kept Chad in Paris indefinitely.

The irony of the strategic outcome is that the Countess de Vionnet has lost despite her 'home-court advantage.' Even with the Francophile and bohemian Americans to help her, even with Strether at her side (a man most thoroughly intoxicated with the idea (l'idee) of Paris, de Vionnet cannot win. When Sarah Pocock arrives, she is relatively unfamiliar with Paris but she has been to Paris before. Sarah is not charmed by the place, nor does she perceive a change for the better in Chad, nor does she intend to be unnerved by the fact of the Countess being a countess.

In contrast to the Countess, Mrs. Newsome is essentially an invalid, stranded at home in Woollett, Mass. She has to send ambassadors because she cannot come to Paris herself. And when one considers that Mrs. Newsome has sent Mamie, Jim, Sarah, and Strether to fetch Chad - one sees that Mrs. Newsome is extremely vulnerable. For all her strength, she remains alone on one side of the ocean. In a sense, Mrs. Newsome has made quite a gamble, but then, Mrs. Newsome insists upon having what she wants.Ã?

Youth and Age

In Henry James' fiction, the ideas of youth and age are often developed within the context of the New World vs. the Old World. This remains true of The Ambassadors, where we find a contrast between the Parisian scenes (Old World) and the American town back home (New World). The young Americans in Paris - Chad, Bilham, Miss Barrace, and Mamie Pocock - are in danger of being "spoiled" by Europe and Europeans. Worldliness, leisure, aristocracy, bohemianism, and in a subtle sense, Catholicism, are among the most potent social forces that threaten to undo the good work of American towns like Woollett, Mass. Chad's rejection of Madame de Vionnet is a rejection of an older woman, a rejection of Paris and the Old World. Chad returns home to become a man of business. The business model flourishing in Woollett, Mass. is modern in comparison to the feudal and aristocratic vestiges of Parisian high society.

For Strether, a man in his late middle age, Paris is rejuvenating. Strether recalls his earlier trip to Paris as a young man. His time in Paris is a time of nostalgia and reflection. Strether looks at his own history, senses regret, and hopes to intervene in Chad's life. The older man does not want to see the young man become a "man of business" and remain unfulfilled in Woollett. Woollett is the New World but it does not promise eternal youth. Paris is archaic, but still capable of inspiring or rejuvenating the disillusioned or jaded.

Chad and Strether undergo a major reversal. By the end of the novel, it is Strether who has articulated and acted upon youthful and naÃ,,"ve principles. Chad has gone in, on his own, for a future in business. Indeed, the very fact of youth, the very fact that Chad has a longer life ahead of him causes him to behave conservatively. With a long life behind him (including a deceased wife and a buried son), Strether gives up the possibility of a wealthy future as Chad's stepfather-in-law. With little left to lose, Strether is able to play his hand more freely. Having arrived on scene to rescue Chad, Strether remains in Paris - somewhat stranded at the end of the novel.Ã,,?

Truth and Beauty

Strether's full name is Lewis Lambert Strether. When he introduces himself to Maria Gostrey, she makes the connection between Strether's name and the title character of Balzac's novel Louis Lambert. Balzac's Louis Lambert was a "mystical thinker" who suffers a cataleptic fit. (Catalepsy is defined by "muscular rigidity, lack of awareness of environment, and lack of response to external stimuli"). When Balzac's protagonist awakens he has lost all sense of reality and to be honest, he is downright insane. Numerous literary critics discuss the similarities between Lewis Lambert Strether and Louis Lambert. Strether sees beauty where it does not exist. Like a mystic, Strether directs his mental energies towards the creation and enjoyment of an ideal. He romanticizes Paris as he is walking through the city.

There is a division between truth and beauty. It is clear that Strether's idea of Paris is a "myth." Strether's nostalgia combines with his present need for glory. Paris and all things Parisian are celebrated, and the effects of Strether's mythology are fascinating to watch. In a sense, the real world never conforms to Strether's mental frame. Strether does not 'fit in' socially and Strether fails his missions because of the difference between what Strether perceives and what actually exists around him. Strether falls for Madame de Vionnet's charm and seems stricken at the end of the novel, when he discovers how he has erred. The beauty that Strether sees in Paris is the very loathsome thing that Sarah Pocock and Waymarsh strive against.

Strether was led to imagine an "improvement" in Chad, though even the most generous reading of the novel fails to locate Chad's moral superlatives. Strether sees and worships glory in others and in the scene. Strether wants glory for himself but he never defines what glory is. He chases beauty without a real understanding of what is beautiful. In terms of the plot, it is worth noting that Strether is a vacationer, he is traveling as a stranger in a strange land. This makes him all the more vulnerable to liars and deceit. Strether has visited Paris once and much has changed since then. At the same time that Strether is re-exposed to a relatively unfamiliar city, Chad's friends deceive Strether with false images of beauty. Having arrived in Paris of all places, Strether cannot help but "find" the beauty he has been told to expect.

The motif of the dramatic play and stagecraft is developed in the early books of the novel. The beauty of stagecraft becomes a "simulacrum" for real life, both a revision and a replacement. This is a form of idealism, an effort to change the real world and have it acted out as a more beautiful story. The mere replacement of reality, however, is less promising. At a show, Strether, Waymarsh, and Maria Gostrey sit waiting for Little Bilham to arrive, for they have invited him. Apparently, Bilham has given his ticket to Chad - for Chad arrives, late, and in Bilham's place. This entrance is the manner in which Chad introduces himself to Strether: just as the "curtain is rising" for the second half of the drama. The social gatherings of Chad and his peers sustain this dramatic beauty - in conversation, in timing, and in costume. For Strether, the consequence is the loss and denial of intelligence and "hard facts."

Finally, the theme of truth and beauty is evident in the discussion of "types" and impressions. Strether has few facts and he knows very little details of Chad's life in Paris. Strether must rely upon Maria Gostrey to educate him on the types of person one finds. This is, at best, shorthand - for each individual is complex and unique. Strether celebrates the idea of "types" as a form of beauty. He wants to believe that the truth about his fellow man is utterly and entirely knowable. Gostrey is vital because she is able to pigeon-hole each person; she has the necessary taxonomy to describe each character.

Gloriani's garden party is the best example of this "beauty" and its evasion of "truth." A sculptor and collector, Gloriani has a garden decorated with standing statues, of his own art and of his collection. The friends and acquaintances that Gloriani has collected mingle with each other, interspersed among the statues of men. As a sculptor, collector, and celebrated social pillar, Gloriani typifies a social structure in which people can be easily labeled as types. Madame de Vionnet and Maria Gostrey are both renowned collectors of sculptural art and in a similar way both figures form others (Chad, Strether) according to a perceived type. The word "type" derives from the Greek word typus which means "impression." The difference between Lambert Strether and characters like de Vionnet, Gostrey and Gloriani is that Strether does not have enough force, enough muscle behind his myth to really make an impression. The other characters force their impressions upon others, they create types out of men like Chad - a man "formed to please" - and Strether, whom Gostrey "led forth into the world" despite his late middle age. These characters use persuasion to create truth from beauty. Ã?