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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

III. The Novelist

The Ambassadors (1903). Moral Zeal and “Vain Appearance”

Texte intégral

  • 1 Device of the City of Paris.

Fluctuat nec mergitur.1

  • 2 The novel must have been written between September 1900 and June 1901 but it was not published unt (...)
  • 3 First published in the Anglo-American Magazine, VII (January 1902), 1-13.
  • 4 The Story in It, Complete Tales, XI, 326.

1The tale James wrote the year before he published The Ambassadors2 may serve as a useful introduction to the novel. In this tale, The Story in It,3 Maud Blessingbourne is engaged in an inner drama as unspectacular as that of the hero of The Ambassadors. She is a female Strether—though treated more lightly—-and a great reader of DAnnunzio and of the French novelists. She is in love with her hostess’s lover, Colonel Voyt, but she wants to keep her love secret. Whenever the colonel calls on his mistress he finds Maud reading and he once tells her that it is quite natural she should read French novels because there is far more variety in them than in their own Anglo-Saxon fiction. Contrary to his expectations, Maud answers that she does not agree with him because the French always describe the same kind of lovers in the same circumstances. She looks in vain, she further tells him, for a “decent character” among those created by the French novelists. The hostess has listened to their conversation and though she never reads a line herself—all her time being spent in “living”—she understands Maud’s problem. The young woman, she tells her lover, is secretly in love with him and she can find in literature no equivalent to her own inner adventure. Nobody has ever described the kind of shy, starved consciousness she herself possesses. No wonder, the Colonel replies, for such a subject would certainly not make the fortune of any author and “who but a duffer... would see the shadow of a ‘story’ in it?”4

  • 5 Preface to The Ambassadors, p. viii.
  • 6 F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition: George Eliot, fames and Conrad (London, 1948), p. 126. The same (...)

2James took up the challenge. In his hands the conventional affair between a young man and an older married woman in the banal Paris setting is completely renewed, and the lovers themselves are less interesting than the “decent” hero who observes them and without whose sharp consciousness they would hardly matter. James himself was very proud of the result and considered The Ambassadors as “quite the best ‘all round’ of all [his] production.”5 But this did not prevent some of his critics from reacting exactly like Colonel Voyt. The most famous detractor of the book is certainly Dr. Leavis, who rejects it as much ado about nothing and who regrets that James should have sacrificed so much for so scant a subject. The novel seems to him “to be not only not one of his great books, but to be a bad one.”6 By trying to fit James into a “great tradition” to which he only partly belonged Dr. Leavis failed to consider the novelist’s American heritage and ignored the “type bourgeois-bostonien” which, in one of his letters to James, Henry Adams called their own. Commenting upon his friend’s biography of W.W Story, Henry Adams reproached him with having attempted to write the biography of a man who had no life at all, but he went on,

  • 7 The Selected Letters of Henry Adams, ed. Newton Arvin (New York, 1951), pp. 239-240. Quoted in G. (...)

you have written not Story’s life, but your own and mine, —pure autobiography,—the more keen for what is beneath, implied, intelligible only to me, and half a dozen other people, still living.... You strip us, gently and kindly, like a surgeon, and I feel your knife in my ribs.7

3Strether, like his creator, is a man to whom nothing happens, and to object to him is to object to James altogether. Dr. Leavis’s attitude towards The Ambassadors throws light on the real “difficulty” of James, a difficulty that lies less in his oversubtle style and overelaborate technique than in his personality itself. The first thing the critic of James must do is to grant him his subject. James repeatedly exhorted the critic to do this in any case: a writer can only give what he has and there is no use quarrelling with his subject. Speaking of James’s “difficulty” T.S. Eliot wrote:

  • 8 T.S. Eliot, “A Prediction” in A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Leon Edel (Englewood Cliffs, Ne (...)

Henry James is an author who is difficult for English readers, because he is an American; and who is difficult for Americans because he is a European; and I do not know whether he is possible to other readers at all. On the other hand, the exceptionally sensitive reader, who is neither English nor American, may have a position of detachment which is an advantage.8

  • 9 Unpublished text quoted by George Markow in “Charles Du Bos et Henry James,” Revue de Littérature (...)

4Charles Du Bos had such a position. For him James was neither English nor American but simply a man, with a personality akin to his own. That is why he lost no time in vain quarrelling but immediately hit the mark: “l’objet final que James se propose toujours, “he wrote,” c’est d’opérer le sauvetage, pour ainsi dire de la quantité maxima de vie en la transférant, en la fixant à jamais dans l’œuvre d’art.”9 This is what James does in The Ambassadors; just as Mr. Longdon “saves” Nanda from the empty world of Buckingham Crescent because he is the only one who can appreciate the girl’s moral richness, so Strether “saves” the story of Chad and Mme de Vionnet by his sensitive appreciation of it, and James, who saves them all, gives a new dimension to the conventional French love story and writes a novel that would probably satisfy Maud Blessingbourne if it happened to fall into her hands.

  • 10 As Maria Gostrey remarks in the first chapter of The Ambassadors, Lewis Lambert is the name of a n (...)
  • 11 As James’s art grew more mature, blanks and things unsaid acquired a positive functional value. Ja (...)
  • 12 The Ambassadors, I, 5.

5Lewis Lambert Strether10 is a middle-aged widower from Woollett, Mass. He is sent to Paris by Mrs. Newsome, whom he may hope to marry only if he rescues her son Chad from the clutches of the “bad woman” who detains him abroad. The young man is needed in the Woollett business, where they manufacture an object of domestic use which remains unnamed till the end.11 When Strether, carrying with him the burden of his Woollett conscience, lands in England, the first person he meets is Maria Gostrey, a Europeanized American who serves her compatriots as a guide to Europe. In Paris Strether goes to Chad’s house, where he finds Little Bilham, another Europeanized American, who occupies the apartment while Chad is away. One evening Chad quite unexpectedly enters Strether’s box at the theatre but the latter does not recognize him immediately. Indeed the young man has improved so much that Strether wonders to whose influence he owes his new features and his refined manners. Strether is then introduced to Mme de Vionnet and her daughter at a party given by the sculptor Gloriani. Still uncertain whether Chad is in love with the mother or with the daughter, Strether calls on the former— who does not call forth the “horrors” associated with such a woman in Woollett—is charmed, changes his mind and advises the young man not to leave her. Mrs. Newsome dismisses her unfaithful “ambassador” and sends other people from Woollett to save her son: her daughter Sarah, Jim Pocock (Sarah’s husband), and Mamie Pocock, Jim’s sister. But Chad lingers in Paris because he has promised Strether not to leave the town without his permission. In between, however, Strether discovers that the relationship between Mme de Vionnet and Chad is not the “virtuous attachment” he had imagined and that Chad has not really improved except superficially. The contact with real facts in Paris will oblige Strether to redefine his preconceived notions and to emancipate himself from the conventional value-judgments of Woollett. We are told at the outset that he is “burdened... with the oddity of a double consciousness” and that “there was detachment in his zeal and curiosity in his indifference.”12 Thanks to his double vision, which embraces contraries and enables him to see things where the Pococks see nothing at all, Strether will understand the other country and be the only good “ambassador” of them all.

  • 13 Ibid., p. xv.

6The meaning of the book is made clear in two important outdoors scenes: the party in Gloriani’s garden in the first part and Strether’s excursion in the country in the second. Both are scenes of recognition for Strether, and each is immediately followed by a confrontation between the hero and Mme de Vionnet, that is, by a scene of recognition for the reader who can thereby see the state of Strether’s mind and his evolution. It is in the sculptor’s garden—the epitome of Paris—that Strether first meets Mme de Vionnet, the concrete personification of the town, that he is almost converted to the French way of life and to their epicurean enjoyment of the present moment, and that he delivers his well-known speech to Little Bilham; it is in the French country—an ideal place of Arcadian beauty—that he sees Chad and Mme de Vionnet on the river and understands that their beautiful relationship is no more than adultery, that there is a flaw in the crystal, a lie under the “vain appearance.” In both cases Strether is confronted with reality, which proves more powerful than his preconceived ideas about it. As James says in the Preface, the false position for his hero was “to have presented himself at the gate of that boundless menagerie primed with a moral scheme of the most approved pattern which was yet framed to break down on any approach to vivid facts.”13

7The scene in Gloriani’s garden, immediately followed by the confrontation scene with Mme de Vionnet at the end of the first part, is the culmination of a carefully constructed process which describes Strether’s progressive approach to “life.” Here again, as in Madame de Mauves or in The Princess Casamassima, the hero passes through successive stages that bring him closer and closer to the central point. In the opening chapter of the book Strether has crossed the Atlantic and is waiting for his friend in Chester. But instead of Waymarsh, who is to arrive later, Strether meets Maria Gostrey, who proposes to guide him in his first steps in Europe. These first steps take the literal form of a walk through the old town, where the picture offered them by the tortuous wall, the cathedral tower and the waterside fields blends in Strether’s mind with a picture from his youth. He had been there thirty years before, and the picturesqueness of the place, which he enjoys immensely, reawakens his past. The young woman at his side notices that Strether looks repeatedly at his watch. She immediately understands that he cannot let himself go and she tells him so. Strether does not deny it: it is, he says, the failure of Woollett, and he would be grateful to Maria if she could get him “out of the terror”:

  • 14 Ibid., p. 17.

I’m always considering something else; something else, I mean, than the thing of the moment. The obsession of the other thing is the terror.14

8There is something wrong in Strether’s temperament, something that prevents him from enjoying the present moment. He is happy at Chester, but at the same time he is ashamed of being so, as though he were stealing his moments of happiness, and he looks mechanically at his watch. This throws light on his true nature: he “questions” time instead of simply living it just as he questions life and wants to see what lies beyond appearances instead of giving himself up to the simple appreciation of them. Yet, he is fully aware of his own oddity and wishes he could let himself go:

  • 15 Ibid., p. 73.

Everything he wanted was comprised moreover in a single boon—the common unattainable art of taking things as they came. He appeared to himself to have given his best years to an active appreciation of the way they didn’t come.15

9Strether then crosses the Channel and arrives in Paris. There he rambles alone in the garden of the Tuileries and looks at the gay animated show around him:

  • 16 Ibid., p. 70.

The prompt Paris morning struck its cheerful notes—in a soft breeze and a sprinkled smell, in the light flit, over the garden-floor, of bareheaded girls with the buckled strap of oblong boxes, in the type of ancient thrifty persons basking betimes where terrace-walls were warm, in the blue-frocked brass-labelled officialism of humble rakers and scrapers, in the deep references of a straight-pacing priest or the sharp ones of a white-gaitered red-legged soldier. He watched little brisk figures, figures whose movement was as the tick of the great Paris clock, take their smooth diagonal from point to point; the air had a taste as of something mixed with art, something that presented nature as a white-capped master-chef. The palace was gone, Strether remembered the palace; and when he gazed into the irremediable void of its site the historic sense in him might have been freely at play—the play under which in Paris indeed it so often winces like a touched nerve.16

  • 17 Ibid., p. 72.
  • 18 In his article (“The First Paragraph of The Ambassadors: An Explication,” Essays in Criticism, X [(...)
  • 19 The Ambassadors, I, 71.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 76.

10Strether is now a step further from Woollett. This world appeals to the senses as Woollett never does. It is a world of surfaces, of noises, of odours and colours, a world created on purpose for the brush of a Monet or a Renoir, in which the presence of art and of history is felt everywhere. But what Strether feels most intensely is the people’s capacity to enjoy the fleeting hour. He no longer looks at his watch because Paris itself is an immense clock of which the French people are the hands. But he stands outside, only “washed up on the sunny strand by the waves of a single day”17: he is a mere spectator who looks at life from the bank of the stream. Here again, as in Chester, something intrudes on his enjoyment: the obsessing interrogation mark on which the book opens18 and which recurs repeatedly throughout the novel, disturbs Strether and clouds his pleasure: the admonition of the morning “took as it hadn’t done yet the form of a question—the question of what he was doing with such an extraordinary sense of escape.”19 Just as he had felt remorse at Chester because he enjoyed the company of a sympathetic young woman instead of being with his friend Waymarsh, he now feels that if he saw Mrs. Newsome appear in front of him he would jump instinctively and walk away a little. His mere looking at the people’s careless enjoyment of the moment makes him feel guilty and throws light on his capacity to project himself into others. Here in Paris, where everything appeals to the senses and mocks the obsessing questions of his serious New-England mind, Strether is more than ever aware of his strange nature. He feels both uneasy and tremendously attracted, and he is “half ashamed of his impulse to plunge and more than half afraid of his impulse to wait.”20 In Chester Strether had become acquainted with Maria Gostrey while he was waiting for Waymarsh. In the Paris of the right bank he goes to Chad’s place on the Boulevard Malesherbes, but the young man he at first mistakes for Chad is Little Bilham, another “intense” American, who initiates Strether into Paris as Maria had initiated him into “Europe” at large.

  • 21 Gloriani had appeared in Roderick Hudson and was to appear again in The Velvet Glove. In “Gloriani (...)
  • 22 The Ambassadors, I, 171.
  • 23 Loc. cit.

11Strether is now ready for his next step towards “life,” and it is Chad himself that introduces him to the famous sculptor Gloriani and his guests.21 The place—in the heart of the Faubourg Saint-Germain—is more “artistic” than the others and everything in it speaks of “survival, transmission, association, a strong indifferent persistent order.22 Chester had been linked with Strether’s own past and had conveyed to him a vague sense of history and picturesqueness. This sense of history had been enhanced in the Tuileries, where the presence of art already made itself felt. Here, in this far smaller place, which strikes Strether’s unprepared mind as “a treasure dug up,”23 there is such a concentration of images and evocations that it calls to his mind the idea of a convent, the place, of all places, where tradition is best preserved:

  • 24 Loc. cit.

Strether had presently the sense of a great convent, a convent of missions, famous for he scarce knew what, a nursery of young priests, of scattered shade, of straight alleys and chapel-bells, that spread its mass in one quarter; he had the sense of names in the air, of ghosts at the windows, of signs and tokens, a whole range of expression, all about him, too thick for prompt discrimination.24

  • 25 Ibid., p. 172.

12In this garden of art Strether is dazzled and blinded by a general sense of glory already suggested by the sculptor’s name and confirmed by Gloriani’s handsome face and forceful masculinity. He feels that he lets his mind “drink in for once the sun of a clime not marked in his old geography.”25 Gloriani is the very image of success in all fields: his works hang in the Luxembourg and in the houses of the New-York billionaires, and his parties bring together the élite of the Parisian and cosmopolitan society. Contrary to Strether, he does not ask questions; neither do his guests: they take people for what they seem to be and do not try to know more about them. Little Bilham advises Strether to do the same:

  • 26 Ibid., p 177.

“What more than a vain appearance do the wisest of us know? I commend you,” the young man declared with a pleasant emphasis, “the vain appearance.”26

  • 27 Ibid., p. 184.

13But when he begins to trust appearances Strether makes many mistakes as his reactions to the people around him sufficiently show. He had thought so much of the woman to whom Chad owed his extraordinary transformation that he feels rather disappointed when the young man introduces him to Mme de Vionnet and leaves them together after having, with light humour, blessed their union. They exchange a few words, which strike him as hardly different from those heard at Woollett, and she turns her back on him to follow a real ambassador. Strether sits on a bench and no longer wants to be introduced to other people. He feels that he is receiving too many impressions at a time: “he had seen... an immensity,”27 and he then exhorts Little Bilham, who has just joined him, to live while he is still young and not to miss the train as he himself has done:

  • 28 Ibid., pp. 190-191.

Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had? This place and these impressions—mild as you may find them to wind a man up so; all my impressions of Chad and of people I’ve seen at his place—well, have had their abundant message for me, have just dropped that into my mind. I see it now. I haven’t done so enough before—and now I’m old; too old at any rate for what I see. Oh I do see, at least; and more than you’d believe or I can express. It’s too late. And it’s as if the train had fairly waited at the station for me without my having had the gumption to know it was there. Now I hear its faint receding whistle miles and miles down the line. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that.28

14What he has missed seems to Strether to be dispensed abundantly in the “great world” around him, and, looking at Gloriani and a Duchess who is speaking to him, he wonders whether he himself is in it, related to them as he is by his observation. But he immediately feels that there lurks something violent and wild in this “great world”:

  • 29 Ibid., p. 192.

Then there was something in the great world covertly tigerish, which came to him across the lawn and in the charming air as a waft from the jungle. Yet it made him admire most of the two, made him envy, the glossy male tiger, magnificently marked.29

  • 30 Ibid., p. 193.

15With his eyes on the sculptor he tells Little Bilham that he knows the man he would enjoy being like, but while the young man follows Strether’s look he sees “in the now full picture, something and somebody else”30: he sees the gracious apparition of Jeanne de Vionnet, accompanied by Chad. Now Strether no longer doubts that the daughter, not the mother, is the one with whom Chad is in love and he readily accepts Little Bilham’s assertion that Chad’s is a “virtuous attachment.” The man he would like to resemble is Chad himself, and the grace and beauty of the girl in her white dress make him forget the unpleasant reality which he had sensed a few minutes before under the magnificent surface. Strether, however, goes on asking questions about Mme de Vionnet. Maria Gostrey tells him that she is a countess separated from her husband, that she was married off by a mother who wanted to get rid of her, and that she is not free to divorce. Maria does not say anything about the Countess’s relation with Chad, and the latter artfully eludes the answers when Strether addresses him directly:

  • 31 Ibid., pp. 209-210.

“Excuse me, but I must really—as I began by telling you—know where I am. Is she bad?”
“‘Bad’?”—Chad echoed it, but without a shock. “Is that what’s implied—?”
“When relations are good?” Strether felt a little silly, and was even conscious of a foolish laugh, at having it imposed on him to have appeared to speak so.... “Is her life without reproach?”
It struck him, directly he had found it, as pompous and priggish; so much so that he was thankful to Chad for taking it only in the right spirit. The young man spoke so immensely to the point that the effect was practically of positive blandness. “Absolutely without reproach. A beautiful life. Allez donc voir!31

16Strether follows Chad’s advice and goes to see for himself in the apartment which the Countess occupies in an old house of the rue de Bellechasse. The house is not unlike that of Claire de Cintré and, like Newman, Strether is struck by the impression of privacy it conveys:

  • 32 Ibid., pp. 213-214.

The court was large and open, full of revelations, for our friend, of the habit of privacy, the peace of intervals, the dignity of distances and approaches; the house, to his restless sense, was in the high homely style of an elder day, and the ancient Paris that he was always looking for... was in the immemorial polish of the wide waxed staircase and in the fine boiseries, the medallions, mouldings, mirrors, great clear spaces, of the greyish-white salon into which he had been shown. He seemed at the very outset to see her in the midst of possessions not vulgarly numerous, but hereditary cherished charming.32

17He imagines the mistress of the place against a background of Napoleonic glamour or in the romantic world of Chateaubriand.

18Mme de Staël and Lamartine. He hears echoes of the past everywhere and feels its stamp on every object around him. The close association with the historical past is what makes the place so different from Maria Gostrey’s “little museum of bargains” and from Chad’s lovely home:

  • 33 Ibid., pp. 214-215.

he recognised it as founded much more on old accumulations that had possibly from time to time shrunken than on any contemporary method of acquisition or form of curiosity. Chad and Miss Gostrey had rummaged and purchased and picked up and exchanged, sifting, selecting, comparing; whereas the mistress of the scene before him, beautifully passive under the spell of transmission... had only received, accepted and been quiet.33

  • 34 Ibid., p. 221.
  • 35 Ibid., p. 232.
    Thus Enobarbus: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
    Her infinite variety.” (Anto (...)

19Strether had heard of French comtesses before, he had read about them, but he had never seen any in the flesh. Looking at Mme de Vionnet, who is so perfectly one with her background, and whose silvery grey frock is in harmony with the grey-white salon, he feels that he has entered a world completely different from his own and in which “each day was more and more a new lesson.”34 He had compared Mrs. Newsome to Queen Elizabeth and Miss Gostrey to Mary Stuart; it is now Cleopatra that comes to his mind. “She’s various. She’s fifty women,” Miss Barrace had said of Marie de Vionnet, like Enobarbus of the Egyptian queen,35 and the assault of images on Strether’s mind is not unlike Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra when she first appears to Antony:

  • 36 The Ambassadors, i, 238-239.

Her bare shoulders and arms were white and beautiful; the materials of her dress, a mixture, as he supposed, of silk and crape, were of a silvery grey so artfully composed as to give an impression of warm splendour; and round her neck she wore a collar of large old emeralds, the green note of which was more dimly repeated, at other points of her apparel, in embroidery, in enamel, in satin, in substances and textures vaguely rich. Her head, extremely fair and exquisitely festal, was like a happy fancy, a notion of the antique, on an old precious medal, some silver coin of the Renaissance; while her slim lightness and brightness, her gaiety, her expression, her decision, contributed to an effect that might have been felt by a poet as half mythological and half conventional. He could have compared her to a goddess still partly engaged in a morning cloud, or to a sea-nymph waist-high in the summer surge. Above all she suggested to him the reflexion that the femme du monde —in these finest developments of the type—was, like Cleopatra in the play, indeed various and multifold. She had aspects, characters, days, nights—or had them at least, showed them by a mysterious law of her own, when in addition to everything she happened also to be a woman of genius. She was an obscure person, a muffled person one day, and a showy person, an uncovered person the next. He thought of Madame de Vionnet to-night as showy and uncovered, though he felt the formula rough, because, thanks to one of the short-cuts of genius, she had taken all his categories by surprise.36

20Strether is confronted directly with “life” embodied here in the eternal, various and multifold Woman, and the rapidity with which he falls into her trap throws light on his ignorance and unprepared-ness. Like Louis Lambert, his Balzacian namesake, he is now as exaggeratedly enthusiastic as he had first been distrustful. Balzac’s hero had passed from hard study and pure idealism to the most exacerbated sensualism. Likewise, Strether’s dedication to moral values is now replaced by a dedication to “taste” and beauty which blinds him so much that, forgetting all wisdom, he allows himself to be ensnared in the Countess’s artful manoeuvring. After bringing him under het spell she now turns the conversation on her daughter and makes Strether pledge his allegiance to her, driving in the “little golden nail” that will bind them together:

  • 37 Ibid., p. 243.

In the very act of arranging with her for his independence he had, under pressure from a particular perception, inconsistently, quite stupidly, committed himself, and, with her subtlety sensitive on the spot to an advantage, she had driven in by a single word a little golden nail, the sharp intention of which he signally felt.37

21This single word is her “thank you,” which Strether, on whom nothing is lost, remembers afterwards as the very beginning of their intimacy. Something has happened and, because he has committed himself, the ambassador from Woollett can no longer fulfill his mission. The first part ends with Strether telling Little Bilham that Chad ought to be ashamed of himself if he ever leaves Mme de Vionnet.

  • 38 Ibid., p. 171.

22In this first part James once more uses his familiar pattern to show Strether’s progressive approach to “life.” But here there is no longer any dividing line between form and content, and each of the hero’s spiritual steps is expressed in the most concrete terms: Strether successively crosses the Atlantic, the Channel and the Seine, and his guides are Miss Gostrey, Little Bilham and Chad, all of them Europeanized Americans. The distance he has to cover becomes smaller and smaller (Woollett—Chester—Tuileries—Gloriani’s garden—rue de Bellechasse) and as the distance diminishes the human, civilizing and artistic element becomes more important while the associations become thicker, “too thick for prompt discrimination,”38 in Gloriani’s garden and so thick in Mme de Vionnet’s place that they assault Strether’s mind with an extraordinary profusion of images. Strether’s maladjustment to “life” is also shown concretely in the way he mistakes some people for others (Little Bilham for Chad, Jeanne for Chad’s love) or fails to see them as they really are. The first part ends with Strether’s final confrontation with “life,” and the little golden nail, driven by the Countess’s delicate but firm hand, also links the two parts of the novel together. The hero’s “adventure” proper does not begin until the second part.

  • 39 Alexander Holder-Barell in The Development of Imagery and its Functional Significance in Henry Jam (...)
  • 40 The Ambassadors, II, 249.
  • 41 Ibid., p. 4.
  • 42 Ibid., p. 7.
  • 43 Ibid., p. 5.
  • 44 Loc. cit.
  • 45 Ibid., p. 4.
  • 46 Ibid., p. 10

23Strether’s successive crossings in the first part, which brought him to the centre of Paris and to Mme de Vionnet, are now followed by his successive “embarkings” in figurative boats39 that will take him to the river scene and to the final confrontation with the Countess. The neat and regular progression of the first part now gives place to a broken and hesitating movement which is the movement of life itself and of Strether’s “perceptions and his mistakes, his concessions and his reserves, the droll mixture... of his braveries and his fears.”40 The scene in Gloriani’s garden and the one in the country are very important, but another passage, exactly in the middle of the book, is even more important, though it has been generally overlooked. Strether finds himself half-way down the nave of Notre-Dame, a great vessel in the middle of the Ile de la Cité, the very heart of Paris. But what differentiates this vessel from an ordinary boat is that it stands on firm ground in the middle of the water. This position is strikingly similar to James’s conception of the aesthetic temperament. For him, as for Strether, life can only be approached through art and this demands neither complete immersion nor complete detachment. Complete immersion deprives the artist of the distinctness of vision necessary to rescue life from chaos. On the other hand, complete detachment prevents him from establishing the relation with life without which there is no art worthy of the name. Strether is no artist proper and the Woollett Review—Mrs. Newsome’s tribute to the ideal—is a poor contribution to literature, but he belongs to the family of those who live by their imagination and whose turn of mind is therefore akin to that of the artists. Strether is both in life and out of it, just as Notre-Dame is both in the river and out of it. Fluctuat nec mergitur: washed up by the waves but not immersed in them. It is in this temple of art—Strether finds in the Catholic church “no altar for his worship”41—that the hero takes refuge after his first real “plunge,” which, significantly, consists in his purchase of a work of art. Strether, who now wants to “live,” has been “giving the rein for once in a way to the joy of life”42 by buying the seventy volumes of the works of Victor Hugo. A French Gloriani as representative of French art as Notre-Dame de Paris which he himself glorified, Victor Hugo was also a true artist in James’s sense, i.e., both in life and out of it. For Strether this first “plunge” is a real adventure and his first real acquisition in France. But he is impressed by his own audacity and takes refuge in the cathedral. He is not free, unfortunately, to be “a mere student under the charm of a museum”43 because he has become too much aware of the terrible life outside, from which he tries to protect himself. The world of art is soothing and reassuring, and far less difficult than life: justice and injustice are outside in the hard light “but one was as absent as the other from the air of the long aisles and the brightness of the many altars.”44 Strether has “a sense of safety, of simplification”45 which art—not life— gives him. In the midst of his meditation he is aware of a human presence but he does not immediately recognize Mme de Vionnet. This extraordinary encounter of “life” and art in the heart of Paris and at the centre of the novel is one of the beautiful passages of The Ambassadors. This perfect poise, this perfect serenity is bound to be broken soon when the two characters reach the outside world where justice and injustice must be reckoned with. Strether tells Mme de Vionnet of his “plunge,” the purchase of the seventy volumes, and he says that it is out of proportion to any other plunge. But as he tells her so “he felt... how at that instant he was plunging.”46

24He then invites the Countess to a charming place on the left bank where he had been with his friends before. For the first time he experiences what he had so much wanted to experience before: the pleasure of letting himself go. Mme de Vionnet succeeds where Maria Gostrey had not, and Strether, now living in the present moment, forgets to look at his watch. When he had accompanied Maria to the theatre in London they had dined together in his hotel and he had reflected that he had been to the theatre in Boston with Mrs. Newsome but that there had never been any tête-à-tête dinner. Here he has gone a step further: there is no theatre at all and he lunches with Mme de Vionnet for mere pleasure’s sake. But if he abandons himself to the appreciation of the moment it is clear that his emotion is strictly aesthetic:

  • 47 Ibid., p. 12.

How could he wish it to be lucid for others, for any one, that he, for the hour, saw reasons enough in the mere way the bright clean ordered water-side life came in at the open window?—the mere way Madame de Vionnet, opposite him over their intensely white table-linen, their omelette aux tomates, their bottle of straw-coloured Chablis, thanked him for everything almost with the smile of a child, while her grey eyes moved in and out of their talk, back to the quarter of the warm spring air, in which early summer had already begun to throb, and then back again to his face and their human questions.47

  • 48 Ibid., p. 13.

25Strether is aware of the “folly of holding off”48 and, like Longmore before him, he hears sounds in the air that advise him to yield to experience:

  • 49 Ibid., pp. 13-14.

Ancient proverbs sounded, for his memory, in the tone of their words and the clink of their glasses, in the hum of the town and the plash of the river. It was clearly better to suffer as a sheep than as a lamb. One might as well perish by the sword as by famine.49

  • 50 Ibid., p. 12.
  • 51 Ibid., p. 20.

26While they sit “at a window adjusted to the busy quay and the shining barge-burdened Seine,”50 Strether has the impression that he is carried away, that the situation is running away with him. In fact only the Seine—that is, life—is running, but their “boat” is motionless and Strether is safely fixed on firm ground. His “experience” will be of the same kind. Taking advantage of their pleasant tête-à-tête to drive her little golden nail a little further, Mme de Vionnet tries to keep Strether in Paris because she knows that if he stays he can prevent Chad from breaking away from her. She asks Strether to “see Chad through” and so, indirectly, to help her. He promises and she thanks him for the second time: “the golden nail she had then driven in pierced a good inch deeper.”51 Significantly, the common ground on which they meet is Chad, and it is also probably the reason why Strether is not afraid to let himself go: Chad shields him, as it were, from a direct contact with life and his presence between Strether and the Countess is like the firm ground of the island or the solidity of the quay between himself and the water. Strether wants to live vicariously through the young man and he hopes to make up late, in his own way, for what he hasn’t had so far. He therefore concentrates all his interest on the magnificent couple:

  • 52 Ibid., p. 44.

I cultivate my little benefit in my own little way. It amuses me more than anything that has happened to me in all my life. They may say what they like—it’s my surrender, it’s my tribute, to youth. One puts that in where one can—it has to come in somewhere, if only out of the lives, the conditions, the feelings of other persons. Chad gives me the sense of it, for all his grey hairs, which merely make it solid in him and safe and serene; and she does the same, for all her being older than he, for all her marriageable daughter, her separated husband, her agitated history. Though they’re young enough, my pair, I don’t say they’re, in the freshest way, their own absolutely prime adolescence; for me that has nothing to do with it. The point is that they’re mine. Yes, they’re my youth; since somehow at the right time nothing else ever was.52

27This passage throws light on Strether’s particular conception of “life.” In Woollett there had been nothing to quicken his mind and senses: he had lived in ignorance and blindness and his senses were starved. Here, on the contrary, he opens his eyes to a wholly new sense of life, and the mere sight of Chad and Mme de Vionnet, with the unsolved mystery of their ambiguous relationship, is sufficient to stimulate his mind as nothing has ever done before. Strether’s “experience,” second-hand though it is, is experience of a kind. With the solid presence of Chad between Mme de Vionnet and himself, he feels safe and can begin to “live,” that is, to make conjectures, to introduce relations, to surround himself with a close web of references and associations and to organize life in order to feel it to the utmost. His interest in Chad and Mme de Vionnet also entails modifications in his previous relations: he now leaves behind Maria Gostrey, who had been the first to recall his youth, and when he hears that Mrs. Newsome is sending her daughter to rescue Chad he feels that she tacitly dismisses him as an ambassador and that Sarah is his appointed successor.

28What strikes Strether when the Pococks arrive in Paris is that none of them—except perhaps Mamie, who remains silent— seems to notice the least change in Chad’s appearance. Strether waits in vain for a word from them on the young man’s improvement; as it does not come he wonders whether it is because they do not see anything or because there is actually nothing to see, which would imply that he is the victim of illusions:

  • 53 Ibid., p. 70.

Did he live in a false world, a world that had grown simply to suit him, and was his present slight irritation—in the face now of Jim’s silence in particular—but the alarm of the vain thing menaced by the touch of the real?53

29It is the real that suddenly intrudes on the romance, the cold shower on the frail constructions of Strether’s fancy. The arrival of the Pococks marks a new stage in their compatriot’s progression towards self-knowledge. On the one hand, they counterbalance his excess of imagination; on the other, they oblige him to reconsider his view of Woollett. Their provinciality, blindness and prejudices are strongly set off against French urbanity, adaptability and vivacity of mind. The contrast between the two worlds is illustrated in the encounter between Sarah Pocock and Mme de Vionnet. When he calls on the former, Strether finds the Countess already in the field, determined to defend her interests to the best of her ability. She offers to help Sarah, who declines by saying that she “knows Paris”; she then turns the conversation on Little Jeanne and begs Mrs. Pocock to arrange a meeting between Jeanne and Mamie; she speaks of Strether and tells her how much people in Paris love him and that he neglects them for Maria Gostrey. She does not hesitate to compromise him before Sarah and Waymarsh and she publicly draws him into her boat:

  • 54 Ibid., p. 82.

To meet his fellow visitor’s invocation and... answer, was quite sufficiently to step into her boat. During the rest of the time her visit lasted he felt himself proceed to each of the proper offices, successively, for helping to keep the adventurous skiff afloat. It rocked beneath him, but he settled himself in his place. He took up an oar and, since he was to have the credit of pulling, pulled.54

30Marie de Vionnet is clearly the better actress of the two, and Strether yields to her, thereby breaking with the “ambassadors” from Woollett. But all the time he has been completely passive and a puppet in the Countess’s hands. Later he feels that what he has been most conscious of is the movement of the vessel itself.

31He is still more or less in it when he calls on Mme de Vionnet a couple of days later. She announces that “they”—by which, as Strether comes to realize, she means Chad and herself—are going to marry Jeanne. This news is the first painful blow Strether receives from the Countess. The veil is suddenly lifted and the reality disclosed is that of a French social conformism hardly better than the moral conformism of Woollett. He had heard and read of the way in which French people marry off their daughters when these come out of the convent but he had never yet witnessed the fact. In this case Strether feels directly involved. By entering Mme de Vionnet’s boat Strether has also entered a way of thinking of which he cannot completely approve. He feels something “ancient and cold” in this arrangement, something quite foreign to all that he knows, something that oppresses him in spite of its looking so much like “the real thing”:

  • 55 Ibid., p. 113.

There were too many connexions missing to make it tolerable he should do anything else. He was prepared to suffer— before his own inner tribunal—for Chad; he was prepared to suffer even for Madame de Vionnet. But he wasn’t prepared to suffer for the little girl.55

  • 56 Ibid., p. 199.

32That a woman as perfect as the Countess should “use” her daughter in that way, that Chad should be her accomplice, that all this should be done for the sake of a title, is too hard a pill for poor Strether to swallow. He feels that he has already sacrificed too much and that there are depths for which he cannot allow. His moral sense now prevails over his aesthetic sense and he feels something sinister in this sacrifice of little white victims on the altar of social beauty. Like Hyacinth Robinson on the Place de la Révolution, Strether begins to realize that blood must be shed, that sacrifices must be made in order to perpetuate any great culture but he does not want to have a hand in it; he feels that he has worshipped strange gods and he asks Little Bilham to marry Mamie Pocock in order to expiate, and prove his own, fundamentally unchanged, fidelity to the old gods. But if the pendulum temporarily swings back to Woollett after the encounter with the Countess, it swings back to Paris again after his last and painful meeting with Sarah Pocock, who still refuses to acknowledge the least change in Chad’s appearance and who reproaches Strether with offending both her mother and herself by admiring such a woman as Mme de Vionnet. There is now a continual oscillation between Strether’s moral sense and his aesthetic sense, between Woollett and Paris, between Mrs. Newsome and Mme de Vionnet. But the one does not exclude the other, and the values of Paris are gradually superimposed upon those of Woollett, shaping Strether’s new vision of life. His attraction to the social perfection embodied by Mme de Vionnet has not rendered him indifferent to the Lady of Woollett: from the first, he tells Maria Gostrey, he has only been preoccupied with the impression everything he saw in Europe might make on Mrs. Newsome, but he had been disappointed in her absolute refusal to see. Mrs. Newsome is a moral block, a “large iceberg in a cool blue northern sea”56 and once she has made up her mind nothing can make her change it:

  • 57 Ibid., p. 198.

She had, to her own mind, worked the whole thing out in advance, and worked it out for me as well as for herself. Whenever she has done that, you see, there’s no room left; no margin, as it were, for any alteration. She’s filled as full, packed as tight, as she’ll hold, and if you wish to get anything more or different either out or in—”
“You’ve got to make over altogether the woman herself?”
“What it comes to,” said Strether, “is that you’ve got morally and intellectually to get rid of her.”57

33Strether must take her as she is, he must take the whole “block” or nothing at all. He is more than ever aware of it now that he has seen Sarah, who resembles her mother as a block of ice resembles another. Chad himself suffers from the Woollett lack of imagination. He understands that his friend will lose a lot of money if he gives up Mrs Newsome but he does not see what he can gain by it. Imagination, however, is not necessary for one to “live” as Chad does: the young man adheres to life as a river to its bed, and though life means something quite different for himself, Strether wants him to live as fully as possible:

  • 58 Ibid., p. 206.

He didn’t want, luckily, to prevent Chad from living; but he was quite aware that even if he had he would himself have thoroughly gone to pieces. It was in truth essentially by bringing down his personal life to a function all subsidiary to the young man’s own that he held together.58

  • 59 Ibid., p. 223.
  • 60 It is not undisciplined nature, but nature in a frame, nature transmuted into art.

34But to live through Chad implies for Strether the risk of becoming personally attracted to Mme de Vionnet. This, he feels, would be a “lapse from good faith,”59 and Strether is not blind to the danger. The last time he had called on the Countess before his excursion to the country, they had adopted a new tone: Chad had been left out of their conversation. Strether, who had already taken refuge in Notre-Dame when too close to life, now goes to the country, where nature and art60 combine to make the place even more soothing.

35This excursion is only one more trip of the Jamesian hero to the place most distant from his ordinary environment. Like Maisie on her rampart in Boulogne, Strether feels that he has now reached the antipodes of Woollett:

  • 61 The Ambassadors, II, 226-227.

The conditions had nowhere so asserted their difference from those of Woollett as they appeared to him to assert it in the little court of the Cheval Blanc while he arranged with his hostess for a comfortable climax. They were few and simple, scant and humble, but they were the thing, as he would have called it, even to a greater degree than Madame de Vionnet’s old high salon where the ghost of the Empire walked. “The” thing was the thing that implied the greatest number of other things of the sort he had to tackle; and it was queer of course, but so it was—the implication here was complete. Not a single one of his observations but somehow fell into a place in it: not a breath of the cooler evening that wasn’t somehow a syllable of the text. The text was simply, when condensed, that in these places such things were, and that if it was in them one elected to move about one had to make one’s account with what one lighted on.61

  • 62 Ibid., p. 222.

36His tension has relaxed now that Sarah Pocock is gone and he feels better; he feels that he is “touching bottom” and he is “kept luxuriously quiet, soothed and amused by the consciousness of what he had found at the end of his descent.”62 What he discovers in the French countryside is a Lambinet which he had nearly bought at Boston years before and which has now come to life around him:

  • 63 Ibid., pp. 220-221.

The oblong gilt frame disposed its enclosing lines; the poplars and willows, the reeds and river—a river of which he didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, the name—fell into a composition, full of felicity, within them; the sky was silver and turquoise and varnish; the village on the left was white and the church on the right was grey; it was all there, in short—it was what he wanted: it was Tremont Street, it was France, it was Lambinet.63

  • 64 Ibid., p. 238.
  • 65 Ibid., p. 248.
  • 66 Ibid., p. 238.

37Strether lets himself be carried away by sweet thoughts and idle dreams, he thinks of his last encounter with Marie de Vionnet, of the new tone of their conversation and he probably imagines himself in her boat. But at that very moment he catches sight on the river of an actual boat with two lovers in it, a detail that had been missing in the perfect organization of the picture. It appears in the field of his vision as unexpectedly as Chad and Jeanne de Vionnet had done in Gloriani’s garden; obviously disturbed at sight of him, the lovers try to avoid him, and Strether recognizes Chad and Mme de Vionnet. This sudden contact with the naked truth makes Strether blush at the idea that he had “dressed the possibility in vagueness, as a little girl might have dressed her doll.”64 There is now every evidence that Chad and the Countess are lovers and that they had planned to spend the night together in a quiet unknown place out of Paris. But in spite of the evidence Mme de Vionnet will try to save the situation and to make even this fit Strether’s frame. With a perfect mastery of her art the Countess, without so much as consulting Chad, tells Strether that they have come out for the afternoon, that they will be delighted to dine with him and to go back to Paris together. She wraps the vulgar facts in a perfect lie and if the quantity of make-believe disagrees with Strether’s spiritual stomach he does not hesitate, when it comes to choosing between the naked fact and the make-believe, to choose the lie, especially as he knows that he can trust the Countess to make deception right: “As she presented things the ugliness—goodness knew why—went out of them.”65 So Chad and Mme de Vionnet are lovers after all, and the Pococks were right to see a simple case of adultery where he himself saw “innumerable and wonderful things.”66 But though he now admits the fact, Strether still rejects the Pococks’ judgment: the relation is not hideous, and Mme de Vionnet is neither base nor vulgar. He begins to understand that there is more in life than the black-and-white distinctions of the Woollett code of morals. The best is always tainted with the worst, and you can’t take the one without accepting the other.

38There now remains for Strether a last step to make to emancipate himself both from Woollett and from Paris, and this will take place during his last confrontation with Mme de Vionnet. Strether wants to follow his thread to the end and to acquire complete knowledge. That is why he is in such a hurry when he receives the Countess’s petit bleu inviting him to her place the day after the excursion. While he answers it without delay in the next telegraph-office Strether feels something in the air of the establishment that strangely resembles life itself:

  • 67 Ibid., pp. 242-243. My italics.

The vibration of the vast strange life of the town, the influence of the types, the performers concocting their messages; the little prompt Paris women, arranging, pretexting goodness knew what, driving the dreadful needle-pointed public pen at the dreadful sand-strewn public table: implements that symbolised for Strether’s too interpretative innocence something more acute in manners, more sinister in morals, more fierce in the national life. After he had put in his paper he had ranged himself, he was really amused to think, on the side of the fierce, the sinister, the acute. He was carrying on a correspondence, across the great city, quite in the key of the Postes et Télégraphes in general; and it was fairly as if the acceptance of that fact had come from something in his state that sorted with the occupation of his neighbours. He was mixed up with the typical tale of Paris, and so were they, poor things—how could they altogether help being?67

  • 68 Ibid., p. 245.

39To be “mixed up with the typical tale of Paris” is to be carried away by the great waves of life, and although he keeps control over the situation Strether feels the pressure of life here more than anywhere else. He then goes to Mme de Vionnet’s place, and his pleasure at the idea of seeing her there is such that he feels he should be punished as a wrongdoer. Since he is not—quite the contrary—he is surprised at his own impunity. The evening is beautiful and hot, and the windows are open. He hears outside the small plash of the fountain, and from farther away there comes “as if excited and exciting, the vague voice of Paris.”68 Yet, he cannot help thinking of cruel things:

  • 69 Ibid., p. 246.

Thus and so, on the eve of the great recorded dates, the days and nights of revolution, the sounds had come in, the omens, the beginnings broken out. They were the smell of revolution, the smell of the public temper—or perhaps simply the smell of blood.
It was at present queer beyond words, “subtle,” he would have risked saying, that such suggestions should keep crossing the scene; but it was doubtless the effect of the thunder in the air, which had hung about all day without release. His hostess was dressed as for thunderous times, and it fell in with the kind of imagination we have just attributed to him that she should be in simplest coolest white, of a character so old-fashioned, if he were not mistaken, that Madame Roland must on the scaffold have worn something like it.69

  • 70 Ibid., p. 256.
  • 71 Loc. cit.

40The sexual energy, the element of violence which, in Gloriani’s garden, had called forth images of the jungle in Strether’s mind, are now present everywhere in the great city. It is the violence of the French Revolution of which Strether seems to hear echoes in the thunder outside and of which Mme de Vionnet has become one of the martyrs. Although no head will be cut at the end of The Ambassadors Strether foresees the Countess’s figurative death: like the French revolutionary who exclaimed before dying: “O Liberté! Que de crimes on commet en ton nom!” Madame de Vionnet will fall a victim to the violence of her passion. What threatens her is not the scaffold but Chad’s departure, which she now tries to prevent or at least to postpone in a desperate last attempt to draw Strether into her boat. But for all his admiration Strether can no longer be fooled by her and he tells her that she is afraid for her life. She then breaks into sobs and the goddess becomes a mere woman, enslaved by a passion “mature, abysmal, pitiful.” She is “visibly less exempt from the touch of time“ and “as vulgarly troubled... as a maidservant crying for her young man.”70 But if the goddess has come down from her pedestal she remains capable of judging herself as a maidservant would not, and Strether still considers her as “the finest and subtlest creature, the happiest apparition, it had been given him, in all his years, to meet.”71 He no longer takes her for what she is not, he has unmasked her, he has penetrated to the bottom of her heart but even now he admires her as much as ever. He sees that she can lie, that she “uses” other people—including himself—for her passion’s sake, he sees how pitiful she is in her enslavement, yet he takes her as she is with all the good and all the evil she embodies, just as he takes the Paris of the Revolution with the Paris of Art. Mrs. Newsome has never told lies in her life but if her conscience— like that of Euphemia de Mauves—prevents her from doing anything wrong it also prevents her from doing anything really fine. To be incapable of the worst is also to be incapable of the best.

41At the end of their last encounter Mme de Vionnet realizes that she has lost and that she will be left alone in Paris. She then plays the card of self-flagellation: she wants too much, she tells Strether; she wants everything and she has wanted him too. “Ah but you’ve had me!” Strether replies. There is both tenderness and irony in his last words. While he acknowledges his debt and his love he also kindly reproaches her for having fooled him. True, he has admired her and learned more from her than from any other woman, but he has also, familiarly speaking, been “had” by her artful manoeuvring, whose only aim was to keep Chad in Paris. To understand the real nature of his relationship with the Countess is also for Strether to have completed his way to self-knowledge. He now leaves her because there is nothing else for him to do: in spite of his sincere admiration, which verges on love, he refuses to play a part in a system of which he disapproves. Even if Chad was no longer there, Strether could not become Mme de Vionnet’s “friend” because his moral sense, which has been preserved all through, would prevent him from becoming the lover of a married woman.

  • 72 Ibid., p. 263.
  • 73 Ibid., p. 290.

42Like Spencer Brydon, the hero of The Jolly Corner, who, when he leaves his house, is different from the Brydon who had entered it, Strether leaves Paris a different man. He is now “well in port, the outer sea behind him, and it was only a matter of getting ashore.”72 What has changed is neither Woollett nor Mrs. New-some but Strether himself (“She’s more than ever the same,” Strether tells Maria Gostrey, “but I do what I didn’t before—I see her.”73). At the end of his exploration Spencer Brydon opens his eyes on his selfishness and on Alice Staverton’s faithful love and he therefore yields to her. At the end of his voyage Strether sees both the sterility of the Woollett righteousness and the vitality of the French immorality and he cannot commit himself to one world against the other. Neither Woollett nor Paris can entirely satisfy him. Woollett is no longer sufficient for one who has known the “vain appearance,” the fascination of surfaces and the rich variety of life. But neither is Paris for the New Englander who has kept his moral sense and who sees the bleeding wounds underneath the graceful surface. The two contrasted worlds correspond to the two poles of Strether’s consciousness and he now wants to encompass both in a general vision of life as a whole, with black and white, good and evil held in balance. He must expand his mind as much as possible and he can only do so by emancipating himself from national prejudices. That is why he must renounce both Mrs. Newsome and Mme de Vionnet, both Woollett and Paris, and go beyond them altogether.

  • 74 “The burden of The Ambassadors is that Strether has awakened to a wholly new sense of life. Yet he (...)
  • 75 The Ambassadors, II, 292.
  • 76 Quoted by F.O. Matthiessen in The Major Phase, p. 50.

43What, in all this, is to become of Maria Gostrey? Many critics find it difficult, in view of Strether’s new sense of life, to accept his refusal of the young woman’s offer.74 Maria Gostrey, indeed, seems to be precisely the cosmopolitan he himself wants to become, the golden mean between the two worlds. What does Strether mean when he says that to accept her would be a lapse from good faith, a lapse from his “only logic. Not, out of the whole affair, to have got anything for myself?”75 What we must first keep in mind is that what Maria offers him is marriage and that marriage, more than anything else, means immersion in life. Now, what Strether has learned in Paris is to know himself, and his duty consists in preserving his integrity and in remaining consistent with his general attitude towards life. At the time when he discussed The Portrait of a Lady with his friend Grace Norton, James had told her that one’s attitude towards marriage was “the most characteristic part doubtless of one’s general attitude toward life, and he had added: “If I were to marry I should be guilty in my own eyes of inconsistency.”76 So, no doubt, would Strether. Whether this is the justification of a weakness or the proof of an extraordinary strength of character, it is not for us to say. What is certain is that Strether shares James’s view on the subject. For him life and marriage are closely linked together and twice in the novel he advises Little Bilham—whom he also exhorts to “live”— to get married, first to Jeanne de Vionnet, then to Mamie Pocock. But at fifty-five, Strether can no longer alter the course of his life. Besides there is no use quarrelling with what one is not, for the affair of life is determined once for all for each of us:

  • 77 The Ambassadors, I, 191.

It’s at the best a tin mould, either fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences, or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one’s consciousness, is poured—so that one ‘takes’ the form, as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it: one lives in fine as one can.77

44At best man can improve the quality of the jelly but he is unable to change the form of the mould and, like some animals, he can but take the shape of his shell. By refusing Maria Gostrey’s offer Strether is fully what he is and he assumes his true character. It is a gesture of affirmation, not one of negation. Though he cannot “live” directly as Chad does, Strether can at least save life from chaos. But in order to do so he must have the most complete vision of its diversity, and this is only possible if he pledges his allegiance nowhere. This is what he means when he tells Maria Gostrey that he wants “to be right”: he has a mission to fulfill and his mission as an ambassador from Woollett, sent to Paris to save Chad, is only the concrete counterpart of his real mission as a conscious human being.

  • 78 Ibid., p. 74.
  • 79 Ibid., p. 85.
  • 80 Ibid., p. 214.
  • 81 Ibid., p. 184.
  • 82 Ibid., II, 246.
  • 83 Ibid., p. 238.

45Nowhere indeed in James’s work are the concrete and the abstract, the literal and the figurative better brought together than in this great novel, where everything can always be taken on at least two different levels of meaning. There is the actual boat of the lovers besides the boat imagery, and the actual train to the country besides the one which Strether advises Little Bilham not to miss if he ever wants to “live.” Even the well-known exhortation to “live” can be taken literally: Strether probably sees in Little Bilham the son who died because he had “given himself to merely missing the mother.”78 The book abounds in examples of that kind. The very complexity of the French way of living, its delicate mixture of good and evil, of black and white is expressed in the most concrete way: it is the grey of Paris, the “cold fair grey, warmed and polished a little by life”79 of Chad’s house, the “greyish-white salon”80 of Mme de Vionnet and the latter’s dress, “a mixture... of silk and crape... of a silvery grey so artfully composed as to give an impression of warm splendour.”81 When Strether first meets the Countess she is dressed in black but “in black that struck him as light and transparent”82 and at the end she is “in simplest coolest white.”83 Good, evil, good-and-evil: the most serious concerns are also the white, black, and grey of Mme de Vionnet’s various dresses.

46This correspondence between the literal and the figurative accounts for the perfect smoothness of the novel. If the basic moral contrast of the early works is repeated here, the surface no longer presents the least asperity. A comparison between the excursions of Coquelin, Longmore and Strether suffices to show how far James has travelled from his earlier works. In Gabrielle de Bergerac he was obliged to resort to external elements to make his meaning clear, and the ruins of Fossy are as little blended with the rest of the story as the Graeco-Roman ruins in neo-classical French painting. Similarly, the graceful pair that reminds us of Renoir in Madame de Mauves is unrelated to the hero’s life and placed there arbitrarily to symbolize careless hedonism. In The Ambassadors everything holds closely together. The country revives in Strether’s mind an “adventure” in the maroon-coloured sanctum of a Boston dealer where he had nearly bought a Lambinet he has never forgotten since. The country is the Lambinet come to life. The lovers are not unknown young people but the very pair through which Strether has undertaken to “live,” and they come in a boat, a very important symbol in the novel.

47Just as the literal and the figurative fuse together, there is hardly any dividing line between present, past, and future. Strether’s present in Paris is pregnant with memories from the past and anticipations of the future. Paris revives his youth, and memories which he thought buried for ever are kindled to life again in the stimulating medium. As the novel draws to its close Strether anticipates his future experience in a Woollett which he now sees differently. At both ends the novel loses itself in an apparent vagueness, thus giving the impression of an indefinite extension of time and of present experience.

  • 84 Preface to The Wings of the Dove, The Art of the Novel, pp. 304-5.
  • 85 The Ambassadors, I, 92.

48The pleasure that can be drawn from a work of art is greatest, James wrote in the preface to The Wings of the Dove, “when we feel the surface, like the thick ice of the skater’s pond, bear without cracking the strongest pressure we throw on it,”84 that is, when the work asks for as much attention as possible. What is true for the reader is also true for Strether, who is apt to glide on the polished surface of Paris as the reader on that of the novel. Paris is a concrete presence, a sound, a vibration in the air, a scent of flowers, an actor’s voice, a picture. While he dines with Waymarsh in the sociable salle-à-manger of his hotel, where the high-shouldered patronne rubs her hands, Strether finds the Parisian evening in “the very taste of the soup, in the goodness, as he was innocently pleased to think it, of the wine, in the pleasant coarse texture of the napkins and the crunch of the thick-crusted bread.”85 The great hum of Paris also comes through the windows of Chad’s apartment and even penetrates through the gaps of the bowed shutters in Sarah Pocock’s room. Paris is “more than ever penetrating” while Strether lingers on the balcony before opening the telegram that contains Mrs. Newsome’s ultimatum:

  • 86 Ibid., II, 21.

It was the evening hour, but daylight was long now and Paris more than ever penetrating. The scent of flowers was in the streets, he had the whiff of violets perpetually in his nose; and he had attached himself to sounds and suggestions, vibrations of the air, human and dramatic, he imagined, as they were not in other places, that came out for him more and more as the mild afternoons deepened—a far-off hum, a sharp near click on the asphalt, a voice calling, replying, somewhere and as full of tone as an actor’s in a play.86

49The beautiful and the sinister still coexist in French life but when he arrives in Paris Strether does not distinguish between them because of the brilliant surface:

  • 87 Ibid., I, 78-79.

It hung before him this morning, the vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.87

50Like the town of which she is the living symbol, Mme de Vionnet is all surface one moment and all depth the next:

  • 88 Ibid., II, 101.

She was so odd a mixture of lucidity and mystery. She fell in at moments with the theory about her he most cherished, and she seemed at others to blow it into the air. She spoke now as if her art were all an innocence, and then again as if her innocence were all an art.88

51Where does art become distinct from nature? Where does innocence stop and artifice begin? Where is the dividing line between the sinister and the beautiful? Paris is a large Impressionist canvas, a twinkling surface, a “vain appearance” in which truth and lies blend in the extraordinary light. It is in that light, the light of the Impressionists, that the whole novel is bathed. It is the light that unifies, that fuses, that vibrates and holds everything together; the light that makes Mme de Vionnet’s black dress appear light and transparent; the light that makes sharp edges smooth and contours blurred. Have the French, Strether wonders in Gloriani’s garden, no other sense than the visual? To which Miss Barrace replies:

  • 89 Ibid., I, 181-182.

“How can it be helped? We’re all looking at each other— and in the light of Paris one sees what things resemble. That’s what the light of Paris seems always to show. It’s the fault of the light of Paris—dear old light!”
“Dear old Paris!” little Bilham echoed.
“Everything, every one shows,” Miss Barrace went on.
“But for what they really are?” Strether asked.
“Oh I like your Boston ‘reallys’! But sometimes—yes.”
“Dear old Paris then!” Strether resignedly sighed...89.

  • 90 Ibid., II, 98.
  • 91 Ibid., I, 239.
  • 92 Ibid., II, 253.
  • 93 Letters, II, 253.

52But Strether—who all the time retains the moral curiosity inherited from Woollett—gradually learns to distinguish between surface and depths, and to see whether or not people are really what they appear. “Judge for yourself,” Little Bilham and Maria Gostrey—“intense Americans” like himself—keep repeating to him. And Strether follows their advice. Mrs. Newsome and the Pococks do not judge for themselves: Woollett only has a priori judgments unverified by facts. Mme de Vionnet and Miss Barrace do not judge at all: “One must think of as few things as possible,”90 the Countess tells Strether. Paris merely lives and does not ask questions. Between the two, Strether, the true ambassador, will exercise his Woollett moral zeal on the swarming variety of the city. But it is because the surface resists the pressure of his inquiring mind that Strether finally attains to knowledge. Newman had approached Paris with his dollars and had naively imagined that he could buy the town if he chose. Strether now approaches it with his moral scheme and quite as naively believes that he can fit the town—represented by Mme de Vionnet—into his frame. But the Countess takes “all his categories by surprise.”91 In both cases it is the richness of the place that prompts them to go on trying. It is because they feel, as Strether does in front of Mme de Vionnet, that there is “always more behind what she showed, and more and more again behind that.”92 The Ambassadors, James wrote to Hugh Walpole, is “a very packed production —with a great deal of one thing within another.”93 Such is Paris; such is Mme de Vionnet; such is life.

  • 94 F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition, p. 161.
  • 95 Notes of a Son and Brother, p. 57.
  • 96 David Lodge (The Language of Fiction, pp. 211-213) stresses the importance of the word “wonderful” (...)

53“What is this,” Dr. Leavis asks in The Great Tradition, “symbolized by Paris that Strether feels himself to have missed in his own life?”94 In wondering whether James has sufficiently inquired Dr. Leavis shows his failure to understand the meaning of the book as well as the personality of its central character and of its author. James, who, as a hungry boy in Paris, used “to store up... treasures of impressions that might be gnawed in seasons or places of want, like winter pears or a squirrel’s hoard of nuts, and so perhaps keep one alive,”95 had surely inquired enough. What Strether finds in Paris and had missed badly in Woollett is simply something for his starved consciousness to eat. Paris is life, but life combined with the unifying light of art, and it is precisely that difficulty, that stimulating element that sets Strether’s imagination to work. It is the light of Paris, the great central intelligence of art spread on the eternal mystery of things and unifying the manners, the language,96 and the external appearances that stimulates the imaginative mind and brings Strether to “the other side,” from which he sees the world he has left behind and emancipates himself from it.

54The moral curiosity thanks to which Strether can achieve complete knowledge also opens his eyes to the moral poverty of Woollett. It is the restrictive, life-excluding morality of a Mrs. Wix which is still worse than no morality at all. What is true for art finally proves true for morality as well. Mind and soul are one, and the human consciousness cannot be divided into parts. Not only the concrete and the abstract, the present and the past, but also the moral and the aesthetic intermingle here in a general sympathetic and all-encompassing appreciation of life. James has now achieved the perfect fusion of the moral and the aesthetic. It is as difficult for the reader to see where the one ends and where the other begins as for Strether to find the dividing line between art and nature in so perfect a compound as Mme de Vionnet or to see, when she walks on the polished floor of her apartment, where the real image becomes distinct from its reflection.


1 Device of the City of Paris.

2 The novel must have been written between September 1900 and June 1901 but it was not published until 1903.

3 First published in the Anglo-American Magazine, VII (January 1902), 1-13.

4 The Story in It, Complete Tales, XI, 326.

5 Preface to The Ambassadors, p. viii.

6 F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition: George Eliot, fames and Conrad (London, 1948), p. 126. The same criticism recurs in The Common Pursuit: The Ambassadors still seems to me so feeble a piece of word-spinning that I should have been inclined to dismiss it as merely senile if James hadn’t himself provided an explanation in telling us that it had been conceived as a short story.” Op. cit., (London, 1962), p. 225.

7 The Selected Letters of Henry Adams, ed. Newton Arvin (New York, 1951), pp. 239-240. Quoted in G. Monteiro, Henry fames and John Hay: The Record of a Friendship (Providence, Rhode Island, 1965), pp. 48-49.

8 T.S. Eliot, “A Prediction” in A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Leon Edel (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1963), p. 55.

9 Unpublished text quoted by George Markow in “Charles Du Bos et Henry James,” Revue de Littérature Comparée, XXV (1951), 445.

10 As Maria Gostrey remarks in the first chapter of The Ambassadors, Lewis Lambert is the name of a novel of Balzac’s—“an awfully bad one.” For a comparison between the two novels, see James W. Gargano, “The Ambassadors and Louis Lambert, Modern Language Notes, LXXV (1960), 211-213.

11 As James’s art grew more mature, blanks and things unsaid acquired a positive functional value. James wanted to draw the reader’s attention to the materialistic basis on which Mrs. Newsome’s world rests. The reader is reduced to conjecture and the effect is far superior to that obtained in The American, where we are told—and soon forget—that Newman has made his fortune by manufacturing wash-tubs. How much James has succeeded in puzzling his readers appears from the numerous articles written on the subject. For Patricia Evans (“The Meaning of the Match Image in James’s The Ambassadors, Modern Language Notes, LXX [Jan. 1955], 36-37) the Newsomes are match manufacturers. For Oscar Cargill (The Novels of Henry fames, p. 333) the object is a tin jelly mould, while for R.W. Stallman (“Time and the Unnamed Article in The Ambassadors,” Modern Language Notes, LXXII [Jan. 1957], 27-32 and “‘The Sacred Rage’: The Time Theme in The Ambassadors,” Modern Fiction Studies, III [Spring 1957], 41-56) the object can only be a watch. All these guesses are interesting but some other gifted critic could demonstrate just as convincingly that the object is an hour-glass or an ice-box.

12 The Ambassadors, I, 5.

13 Ibid., p. xv.

14 Ibid., p. 17.

15 Ibid., p. 73.

16 Ibid., p. 70.

17 Ibid., p. 72.

18 In his article (“The First Paragraph of The Ambassadors: An Explication,” Essays in Criticism, X [July 1960], 250-274) Ian Watt shows that the question of the first line is a symbolic prefiguring of the whole: Strether will go on asking questions just as Kate Croy, who, in the first sentence of The Wings of the Dove, is shown waiting, will go on waiting till the end of the novel.

19 The Ambassadors, I, 71.

20 Ibid., p. 76.

21 Gloriani had appeared in Roderick Hudson and was to appear again in The Velvet Glove. In “Gloriani and the Tides of Taste” (Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XVIII [June 1963], 65-71), Viola Hopkins shows that the evolution of this character reflects the evolution of James’s ideas about art.

22 The Ambassadors, I, 171.

23 Loc. cit.

24 Loc. cit.

25 Ibid., p. 172.

26 Ibid., p 177.

27 Ibid., p. 184.

28 Ibid., pp. 190-191.

29 Ibid., p. 192.

30 Ibid., p. 193.

31 Ibid., pp. 209-210.

32 Ibid., pp. 213-214.

33 Ibid., pp. 214-215.

34 Ibid., p. 221.

35 Ibid., p. 232.
Thus Enobarbus: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.” (Antony and Cleopatra, II, ii, 239-240)
U.C. Knoepflmacher has pointed out the relation of The Ambassadors with Shakespeare’s play, see “‘O Rare for Strether!’”: Antony and Cleopatra and The Ambassadors,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XIX (March 1965), 333-344.

36 The Ambassadors, i, 238-239.

37 Ibid., p. 243.

38 Ibid., p. 171.

39 Alexander Holder-Barell in The Development of Imagery and its Functional Significance in Henry James’s Novels (pp. 118-119), John Paterson in “The Language of Adventure in Henry James” (American Literature, XXXII [1960], 291-301) and Robert Gale in The Caught image: Figurative Language in the Fiction of Henry James (pp. 3, 5, 34) have noted the wealth of water-imagery in The Ambassadors but have paid too little attention to the more important boat imagery. David Lodge in The Language of Fiction (p. 206) connects it with the scene on the river and notes that many images are explicitly connected with boats.

40 The Ambassadors, II, 249.

41 Ibid., p. 4.

42 Ibid., p. 7.

43 Ibid., p. 5.

44 Loc. cit.

45 Ibid., p. 4.

46 Ibid., p. 10

47 Ibid., p. 12.

48 Ibid., p. 13.

49 Ibid., pp. 13-14.

50 Ibid., p. 12.

51 Ibid., p. 20.

52 Ibid., p. 44.

53 Ibid., p. 70.

54 Ibid., p. 82.

55 Ibid., p. 113.

56 Ibid., p. 199.

57 Ibid., p. 198.

58 Ibid., p. 206.

59 Ibid., p. 223.

60 It is not undisciplined nature, but nature in a frame, nature transmuted into art.

61 The Ambassadors, II, 226-227.

62 Ibid., p. 222.

63 Ibid., pp. 220-221.

64 Ibid., p. 238.

65 Ibid., p. 248.

66 Ibid., p. 238.

67 Ibid., pp. 242-243. My italics.

68 Ibid., p. 245.

69 Ibid., p. 246.

70 Ibid., p. 256.

71 Loc. cit.

72 Ibid., p. 263.

73 Ibid., p. 290.

74 “The burden of The Ambassadors is that Strether has awakened to a wholly new sense of life. Yet he does nothing at all to fulfill that sense. Therefore fond as James is of him, we cannot help feeling his relative emptiness.” F.O. Matthiessen, The Major Phase, p. 39. Much as I admire F.O. Matthies-sen’s otherwise sound criticism of James it seems to be wide of the mark in this case. Strether’s “adventures” are of the mind and there is no reason why he should do something at the end of the novel. He can only fulfill his new sense of life in a spiritual way.

75 The Ambassadors, II, 292.

76 Quoted by F.O. Matthiessen in The Major Phase, p. 50.

77 The Ambassadors, I, 191.

78 Ibid., p. 74.

79 Ibid., p. 85.

80 Ibid., p. 214.

81 Ibid., p. 184.

82 Ibid., II, 246.

83 Ibid., p. 238.

84 Preface to The Wings of the Dove, The Art of the Novel, pp. 304-5.

85 The Ambassadors, I, 92.

86 Ibid., II, 21.

87 Ibid., I, 78-79.

88 Ibid., II, 101.

89 Ibid., I, 181-182.

90 Ibid., II, 98.

91 Ibid., I, 239.

92 Ibid., II, 253.

93 Letters, II, 253.

94 F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition, p. 161.

95 Notes of a Son and Brother, p. 57.

96 David Lodge (The Language of Fiction, pp. 211-213) stresses the importance of the word “wonderful” in the novel and the various meanings attached to it. He might have shown that this is, in the field of language, another illustration of “the vain appearance”: it is a surface word with no meaning in itself, just like Chad’s appearance and the Countess’s manners.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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