The Ambassadors by Henry James

9780141441320It’s difficult to give a synopsis for this book because not a lot happens, in terms of action. An older gent named Lambert Strether is sent to Paris to retrieve a young man named Chad Newsome. Chad’s mother is a matriarch of sorts based in an industrial Massachusetts town, and Chad won’t come home from Paris so his family is convinced that he’s been entrapped by some dreadful French hussy. The “action” in the novel is the various social negotiations and interactions between the characters in Paris, all revolving around Chad’s situation and what he will do or should do. Character dynamics, in general, are probably more important than anything else to the story; there’s a subtle war of moral ideologies, and depending on which side of the subtle war of moral ideologies each character falls on determines how they deal with the other characters and determines the pacing of the narrative.

Some of my favorite things about James, that are included in this particular novel, are: incredibly accurate observations on social interactions; his dialogue, which is not necessarily realistic but always entertaining and loaded with subtext; his characters are fully-formed and complex, and even if they fall into a specific trope like Hag or Angel or Rake, they come across as distinct and realistic. This last especially applies to his female characters: I’m always surprised that his ladies are so great, considering the time James was writing in and the state that the novel was in when James was writing (that is, the 19th century was freaking sexist but James was pretty great most of the time, probably because he was friends with ladies like Edith Wharton).

If the title doesn’t sound accurate yet, here are some of the functioning ambassadorial missions in the novel:

Mr. Strether is sent by Mrs. Newsome to talk to Chad to get him to come home
Sarah Newsome is sent by Mrs. Newsome to talk to Chad/Strether to get them to come home
Miss Gostrey occasionally goes to Strether on Mrs. Vionnet’s behalf
Mrs. Vionnet goes to Strether on Chad’s behalf
Mr. Bilham goes to Strether on Chad’s behalf
Miss Barrace deals with Waymarsh on Chad’s behalf, mostly as a distraction
Strether goes to Bilham on Mamie’s behalf

For whatever reason, no one can manage to confront anyone directly about their problems or feelings. Miss Gostrey and Strether come the closest: they can talk to each other about pretty much everything, but still barely touch on their feelings for each other at any point, even though it’s lurking below the surface of their words almost constantly.

What surprised me most about this novel is that it feels like a bildungsroman, with Strether as the “artist,” except that he isn’t young, idealistic, or artistic. But it is about him growing, coming to terms with himself and the world, and deciding who he’s going to be – or maybe realizing who he is and then acting on it. Chad is the young passionate lover-artist, but the more we get to know him the more flawed and unreliable he becomes in heroic terms. Mrs. Vionnet is a very traditional damsel in the sense that she mostly relies on the men to solve her problems, and when she tries to help her own situation she relies on emotional pleas. Mamie and Jeanne are both relegated to pawns, trading pieces, or bribes, that need to be married off so that they’re not obstacles for Chad’s happiness, but what I like about Mamie is that the story leads you to expect her to be a beautiful airhead, and then she turns out to be a genuinely nice person who wants to do the right thing. Bilham is wonderful: smart, funny, working behind the scenes to help his friends; Miss Barrace is similar to Barrace but a lot more eccentric, and seems to use them all for entertainment, anyway. Waymarsh is really fascinating because he has the best intentions but still betrays Strether dramatically, which ties into a big theme: morality.

All of the characters want to do what’s “right” in their view and be seen as “good” people. Strether’s struggle is so hard for him because Chad seems to be doing “wrong” but all the results are “good,” but then once he can’t ignore Chad’s “sin” with Vionnet as it’s thrown into his face, Strether has to struggle with that and ultimately make a decision on what Chad needs to do to be “right.” I’m sorry for all of the quotation marks, but every character uses right or wrong for a certain value of right or wrong, and the universal Rightness is never really determined. Everyone talks at length about how Chad has to do the right thing, but no one spells it out, least of all to his face. Strether takes the entire novel to decide what the right thing to do is, and once he commits to that, he has to work himself up to imposing his definition of right on the other characters, specifically Sarah Pocock (Chad’s sister) and Chad himself. By doing so, Strether breaks through the cycle of ambiguities, half truths, and vague language that has plagued everyone, as well as the novel itself, since page 1.