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The Ambassadors: Essay Q&A

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1. Compare Woollett with Paris. What values does each city represent for Henry James and for his protagonist, Lambert Strether? How do they illustrate the fundamental differences between America and Europe?
Woollett, Massachusetts, represents the typical provincial American town. Industry is booming there, with the Newsome family’s factory doing a brisk business in some rather vulgar, ordinary household product. There are only “three or four” opinions in Woollett; a town where conventional values are not very often challenged and conformity in thought is the norm. Strether edits a literary journal called the Review, which is sponsored by Mrs. Newsome as her tribute to intellectual life. It contains a safe, predictable collection of Mrs. Newsome’s conservative American views on economics, politics, and ethics. The morality of Woollett is predictably Puritan, with Mrs. Newsome as one of the chief “moral swells”—she is depicted as having a moral life that is as irreproachable as her impeccable hairstyle. Mrs. Newsome, as the typical matron of Woollett, would not dream of wearing a low-cut dress as Miss Gostrey does in Europe; her best gown is a tasteful black with a high neck ruff.
Paris, of course, is the shining star of cosmopolitan Europe. Strether cannot resist the beguiling, sparkling, ever-changing City of Light: “It hung before him…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.” In Paris one can find a place among the artistic and worldly; a life of percolating discussions in which diverse opinions (rather than only three or four) are shared by the best and brightest minds, where beauty in all its forms is appreciated and valued. There is the Louvre; here the theaters. Here dwell the magnificent femmes du monde, the women who wear low-cut dresses and dine with strange men at hotels; who manage to look charming with their elbows on the table. The people of the high society, when they are not ambassadors, artists, and bankers, are not industrious but idle, independently wealthy, leading lives that seem morally decadent to the Calvinist work ethics of New England.
For James, then, as for Strether, Europe stands for culture, refinement, and civilization, while America stands for simplicity and vulgar provincialism. At the same time, Europe represents an idle way of life and a moral decadence against which an industrious, Puritan America fiercely and nobly rebels. In the encounter of Europe with America, there is much to be learned from either side.
2. Discuss the characters of Waymarsh and Miss Gostrey, Strether’s two friends and confidantes in Europe. How do the two “interlocutors” function as devices to further the narrative? How do they help shed light on the character of Strether?
The characters of Waymarsh and Miss Gostrey are important devices to further the narrative of The Ambassadors. Through Strether’s conversations with them, the reader learns the background of Strether’s life in Woollett, what Strether’s mission in Europe is to be, and what he thinks and feels at every step of his journey.
This is a psychological novel. Rather than showing a lot of action, James lets us into the mind of his protagonist. In fact, often the reader does not see an occurrence or conversation firsthand, but learns about it later through a conversation Strether has with one of his confidantes. Waymarsh and Miss Gostrey serve as springboards for Strether’s thoughts and impressions, but they are not only passive listeners. They challenge Strether and push him in different directions, helping him to grow as a person. Also, by their contrast to him, we learn more about Strether’s character.
Miss Gostrey challenges Strether’s assumptions about Europe; she opens his mind. Indeed, she is a challenge to the strict, noble New England Puritanism of Woollett, which is embodied by Mrs. Newsome and which Strether carries with him as her ambassador. Waymarsh, on the other hand, challenges Strether as he is drawn in by Europe, reminding him of his duties to Woollett and attempting to hold him to that New England morality.
Both characters serve as foils to Strether and help bring his character more sharply into relief. Miss Gostrey is a foil in that she is much more sophisticated and savvy and uninhibited than Strether, especially at the beginning of the novel. Through her, we realize how much Strether has to learn and how naïve he is. Waymarsh is a foil because he is so much more stern and rigid. Through Waymarsh, we realize how open-minded and easily manipulated Strether can be, and how full of wonderful imagination he really is.
3. Contrast the two American “ambassadors”—Lambert Strether and Sarah Pocock. How do they see Chad’s situation differently, and why?
Strether is Mrs. Newsome’s first “ambassador” to Paris. When Strether initially arrives in Europe and discusses his mission with Miss Gostrey, as of yet not having seen Chad, he has the same opinion of the young man as the rest of the family back home in Woollett. Chad is an “obstinate” boy who has made his mother suffer. He is now living a wicked and degenerate life in Paris, probably in the clutches of some woman of the street. When Miss Gostrey suggests that Chad may actually be ok, that he in may have gotten, instead of corrupted, refined, Strether is unable to consider that possibility.
However, after meeting Chad, Strether immediately recognizes that there has been a dramatic transformation. Chad is at ease in society; he is refined, graceful, and considerate where he had been uncouth, awkward, and inconsiderate before. Soon Strether finds out what caused the remarkable transformation—it was a remarkable woman. Strether is stunned by the Countess Marie de Vionnet. The more he gets to know her, the more convinced he is that their relationship is pure and good, and that she, Marie, loves Chad very much. Strether realizes that Chad is leading the life he wished he would have taken for himself when he had the chance, and, determined to help Chad keep this life, writes home pleading that Chad be allowed to stay in Europe.
The response from home is to send in reinforcements. A new ambassador is sent in the form of Sarah Pocock, Chad’s older sister. Sarah is a no-nonsense type, all business and no charm. Like her mother, she is convinced that Chad is living a debauched, corrupt life in Paris, and is determined to bring him home. While Strether finds Chad “wonderful” and believes that he has been refined and improved immeasurably by his time in Europe, Mrs. Pocock thinks the young man—and his relationship with the Countess—almost unspeakably “hideous.”
Sarah’s pronouncement is couched in the rigidly puritan values of Woollett, Massachusetts, and the fact that she is unwilling to keep an open mind speaks more loudly against her than her brother. Yes, Strether notes, Sarah is “magnificent”—a force to be reckoned with—but only because of her stubborn lack of imagination. She has been unable to dream of a better, finer life for Chad than the one that awaits him back in the industrial town of Woollett. Strether has perhaps too much imagination. He dared to dream that Chad could live the life he himself had once dreamed of having, the life, it seems that Chad is ultimately not capable of appreciating.
4. Assess the character of Chadwick Newsome, especially with respect to his decision at the end of the novel. Is he really as “wonderful” as he appears to Strether that first night at the theater?
When Strether first sees Chad Newsome, he is stunned by the transformation. Chad was a wild and uncouth young man when he first set out for Europe three years before. As he enters the box at the theater, however, he does so with such grace and savoir faire that Strether realizes almost immediately that Chad is now a gentleman.
Talking to Chad about the reasons he is needed at home in the family business, Strether finds the young man tractable and reasonable. He carefully considers Strether’s proposal and ultimately agrees to abide by the older man’s wishes. This surprises Strether, who had expected to find a selfish and “obstinate” boy he once knew.
At Gloriani’s garden, Chad shows a new side of his “wonderful” new personality. He is gracious and completely at ease with the celebrity sculptor, Gloriani. Gloriani seems to seek Chad out, while he ignores Strether. Chad has truly become a part of fashionable Bohemian society in Paris, accepted into a circle of friends that includes ambassadors, bankers, and artists of all stripes.
The reason for this transformation is the work of the Countess Marie de Vionnet, Chad’s married lover. Like a good French mother, she has educated the young man and made him into the perfect cosmopolite. Now, she is desperately in love with him. The very fact that Chad has been able to win the heart of such a “sublime” lady, Strether feels, is further evidence of Chad’s greatness. Strether is determined to keep the two together, and works to ensure that Chad is able to stay in Paris.
However, as Miss Gostrey warned, Chad may not be as good as Strether thinks, either. Strether is to find out that Chad’s relationship with Mme. de Vionnet is less “virtuous” than he had been led to believe—they are, in fact, lovers. Furthermore, Chad shows that he is willing to abandon the woman who made him what he is, the woman who so desperately loves him, for a future in his family’s business back home.
Strether exclaims that Chad will be a “brute” and a “criminal of the deepest dye” if he abandons the Countess. But the young man is not so much a brute as he is very shallow. He becomes excited about the prospect of advertising, which, he says, “c’est un monde”—it’s a whole world unto itself. Chad’s words reveal that he is, indeed, far from the worldly sophisticate that he appears. His “wonderful” appearance only goes so deep, and beneath it all, he’s no gentleman of the world, but really just a chip off the old block of his business-savvy, but vulgar, American father.
5. Explain why Strether decides, in the end, to leave Paris. In doing so, does he align himself, finally, with the morals of Woollett—and of American society? Why, or why not?
At the end of The Ambassadors, after Strether has grown to “know his Paris” and love it, and after he has essentially lost all that he had back home, he decides to return to Woollett. Critics have long debated why Strether returns to Woollett and what the significance of his choice is. Has Strether ultimately rejected Paris as too decadent after all, and embraced the ideals behind Waymarsh’s “sacred rage”? Does he then revert to the puritanism of Woollett that he had come to question? Or is it more subtle than that?
In the first six books of the novel, Strether is seduced by Europe. Springtime in Paris transforms him, and he awakens to all that he has missed in his life in the gray, industrial New England town. Here there are more than three or four opinions to be shared. Here are theaters, here is fine art, here are the great minds of the world, here are the enchanting femmes du monde. His friendships with Miss Gostrey and Mme. de Vionnet surpass the level of emotional intimacy he has been able to achieve with the staid Mrs. Newsome. In short, Strether had expected to be shocked by Chad’s life; he expected to find it base and venal, but instead he finds it sublime.
The discovery that he has been deceived and that Chad’s relationship with Mme. de Vionnet is really not as virtuous as he had thought stuns Strether into the realization that he has idealized Paris, and Europe. Here in the echelons of high society are the vulgarities of maidservants. The sublime and the base can coexist. Simultaneously, observing the Pococks, he finds that the staid minds of Woollett are not as bland as he had previously thought. The icy Sarah falls for Waymarsh; the “It” girl Mamie can appreciate the artistic Bilham; and the uncouth Jim becomes entranced by Mme. de Vionnet.
Although Strether ultimately leaves Europe, it cannot be said that he turns against it. He does not then reject all that he has come to appreciate, and revert to the puritanism of New England, as embodied in the “sacred rage” of Waymarsh—in fact, late in the novel, Strether influences his friend to “let go” and pursue his own flirtation with the very married Sarah Pocock. Strether has found that the rules can be broken, but one must follow one’s own conscience with regard to which rules to break.
However, Strether is still an American, after all. In the free and easy world of Paris, he is apt to take things hard and be made a fool, he tells Miss Gostrey. His mind has been opened, but really, he is an American at heart, with a conscience that tells him it would not be right of him to gain something from the whole affair. Strether will return to Woollett, but he will return a changed man. He has opened his mind and can think for himself, free of the prejudices and delusions he had when he first arrived at Chester. No longer will he blindly accept the values and judgments of Woollett, but he will decide for himself what is right.


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