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The Ambassadors: Part 11, Chapters 28-31

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Part 11

Chapter 28
Late in the evening, after his troubling confrontation with Sarah Pocock, Strether goes to Boulevard Malesherbes to see Chad. Chad is not home, and he waits for hours in the night, feeling both dreadfully nervous and wonderfully free. He leans over the balcony and breathes in this mysterious freedom in the air outside, recalling the days of his long-ago youth.
Chad returns. Seeing the pleased smile on the young man’s face, Strether is struck by Chad’s easy self-assurance, his “knowing how to live.” He comments that Sarah is afraid of Chad, intimidated by him and his “wonderfulness,” and that’s why she wants to blame everything on Strether. The two men agree that Sarah and Mrs. Newsome are unwilling to accept that Chad is better off where he is; they want to see something sordid and inappropriate in his European life, and there is no hope of changing their minds.
Strether plans to see Sarah again in an attempt to patch things up, but he’s not sure he will see Mrs. Newsome again. Chad marvels that Strether could be willing to give up everything—all that Mrs. Newsome could do for him—for an uncertain future. He says he is willing to go home anytime Strether gives the word; he doesn’t want his friend to suffer because of him. Strether points out that they both stand to lose a lot—principally a lot of money—if they do not go back to Woollett.
Chad discusses his situation. His sister despises him, and it will be a great victory for her if she succeeds in wrenching him out of Paris. Mamie Pocock is not interested in him; if she were, he might be able to get over Mme. de Vionnet. He doesn’t want to love Mme. de Vionnet—he wants to want to go back home, but he’s just not sure he can. The gauche and hopeless Jim turns him off, probably because he knows that he could end up just like his brother-in-law if he goes back home.
At last, they talk delicately of Chad’s mother. She evidently hates Mme. de Vionnet, and might hate Strether as well, if he doesn’t look out. Strether repeats that he must see Sarah again before she leaves for Switzerland.
Chapter 29
The next day, after a second meeting with Sarah, Strether goes to see Miss Gostrey, whom he has been keeping up to date on the situation. He informs Miss Gostrey that the Pococks are leaving immediately for a tour of Switzerland. Waymarsh will accompany them as a companion for Sarah, and little Bilham for Mamie. Strether wishes he could have gotten Mme. de Vionnet to go along as an escort for Jim Pocock. Jim went to see the Countess alone for tea the day after Chad’s party, and Strether thinks he is rather taken with the refined lady.
“Are you really in love with her?” Miss Gostrey asks, pointedly but with a playful tone. Strether says it doesn’t matter; it has nothing to do with the two of them. It is Miss Gostrey that he wants and needs to stay in Paris for him; he missed her the last time she disappeared. Miss Gostrey admits that she wished to be out of the way in case Mme. de Vionnet decided to take Strether for herself, as jealous women often do, but Strether declares that no matter what Mme. de Vionnet might have done or said, he would still have belonged to Miss Gostrey. On hearing this, Miss Gostrey wails longingly.
Strether recounts what happened in his meeting with Sarah Pocock. He surprised her at her hotel and declared that if Chad does not return to Woollett, he will bear all the blame. In the meantime, he has asked her to wait another five or six weeks, until after their journey in Switzerland, for a final answer as to whether Chad will sail for home or not.
“Do you want Mrs. Newsome—after such a way of treating you?” asks Miss Gostrey. Strether hasn’t decided yet what he will do about her. He admits that he has disappointed Mrs. Newsome, but she has disappointed him as well. Strether came to Europe with an open mind, open to surprises and adventure, but Mrs. Newsome doesn’t admit surprises; she worked it all out in her head in advance that Chad must come home, and nothing will make her change her mind. Strether has a great imagination, but Mrs. Newsome has none. Mrs. Newsome and Sarah both think that Mme. de Vionnet and Miss Gostrey are horrible influences on Chad and Strether. What will Strether do? At the worst, he can forget Miss Gostrey. But can Chad forget Mme. de Vionnet?
Miss Gostrey vows to see Strether through his situation. She warns him that Chad and Mme. de Vionnet will probably abandon him now, ashamed of what they have done—or, more precisely, what Mme. de Vionnet has done—to ruin his life. “Ah, but she hasn’t done it yet!” laughs Strether.
Chapter 30
Strether takes a train out of Paris, with no particular destination in mind. He wants to see the rural France he had once glimpsed in a small painting by Lambinet, displayed in a Boston art dealer’s shop years ago. He always regrets not having bought the painting when he had the chance. About eighty minutes outside of Paris, he gets off the train and walks into a scene very like that in the Lambinet—a pastoral village on a river with a small gray church. He walks to a sunny hillside and lies in the grass, fantasizing about how he will spend the rest of his day. Later, he thinks, he will go and have dinner in a little rustic inn. Without anyone else there to criticize his French, he will converse freely with the carriage driver. He realizes for the first time how tired he has been, and how much he is now able to relax.
In the past several days, he has made two visits to Mme. de Vionnet. He asked her specifically to talk only about happy things, and they began a friendship that was not based on Chad. They found they had much in common and their time together was smooth and happy.
Now, today, he continues to feel happy and relaxed. He walks many miles through different villages, stopping for a beer at a café and speaking to rustic locals, and finally ending back at the first village, at a quaint hotel, where a hostess prepares his dinner. This place, he thinks, is “the thing.” This France, more than Mme. de Vionnet’s old high salon, is the one that really matters.
The hostess mentions that two other tourists will also be coming to dine that evening, and that he may wait outside on the pavilion. As Strether waits there, idly gazing over the river below, he sees something that gives him a shock.
Chapter 31
The shocking thing that Strether has seen is none other than Chad and Mme. de Vionnet in a boat together, apparently on a country outing themselves. They appear to recognize Strether and to begin cautiously paddling away, hoping he has not seen them yet. As they hesitate, Strether decides to call out to them, using a jovial tone to defuse the awkwardness of the meeting. The three dine together, marveling over the amazing coincidence, and return to Paris on the same train.
Strether realizes, however, that there has been a lie in the affair. Chad and Mme. de Vionnet obviously planned to spend the night together at some hotel in the countryside, but were forced to return to Paris to hide that fact from Strether. They probably even left their traveling clothes behind at the hotel, Strether realizes, as Mme. de Vionnet had no shawl to wrap around herself in the chill of the evening. The whole evening was a farce.
Still, Strether is glad that he called out to them, rather than having to forever pretend he did not see them on that boat.
He wonders whom he can talk to about what he has seen. If he tells Maria, she will laugh at his innocence—what did he think? Of course they are sleeping together! Strether realizes at last that he has all along been trying not to assume anything. Now, he assumes everything.
Analysis of Part 11
Strether was reluctant to face Sarah, but now that the worst is over, he is stronger and more decisive than ever. He feels free. This is not the same Lewis Lambert Strether who first arrived in Chester—he is a changed man. He knows that he will lose much by displeasing Mrs. Newsome, but he is strong enough to stand up for what he believes to be right. And, he realizes, he may admire Mrs. Newsome, but he cannot have a truly great relationship with her if they are not of like minds. Having enjoyed a relationship of genuine mutual understanding with Miss Gostrey, Strether is no longer able to “sell out” for anything less.
Strether is willing to sacrifice his own prospects to give Chad a chance at the life he never had—a life in one of the capital cities of the world, with a place among the artistic and worldly; a life of percolating discussions in which diverse opinions are shared by the best and brightest minds, where beauty in all its forms is appreciated and valued; and best of all, a life in which he can be loved by a truly remarkable woman with the best breeding Europe has to offer. What Strether doesn’t realize, however, is that Chad may not have the depth to appreciate that life. Chad has, on several occasions, cheerfully stated his readiness to return home. He misses his mother. He does not want to love Mme. de Vionnet; it would be far easier for him if Mamie would only fall in love with him, and he could choose her instead. Chad has too little imagination; Strether has perhaps too much. Chad cannot believe that Strether will give up a fortune in exchange for “Europe”; Strether cannot believe that Chad would abandon “Europe” in exchange for a fortune. (“Europe” here referring to the wider world of ideas and art and culture and higher thought that the Continent represents for Strether, and for Henry James.)
Strether is one of the great procrastinators of literature, perhaps on a par with Hamlet in Shakespeare’s famous play. Arriving in Chester, he is relieved to find that Waymarsh has not yet arrived at the hotel, because it buys him time to enjoy the town for himself; arriving in Paris, he is relieved to find Chad out of town because it allows him to delay his mission; when the Pococks are set to come out, Strether welcomes them as a ruse to gain more time in Europe. In Part 11, he begs Sarah for yet another delay. With the Pococks and Waymarsh gone to Switzerland, he is completely relaxed for the first time since arriving in Europe.
A major theme of the novel is the importance of living life to the fullest before it is too late, and Strether’s procrastination is all to that end. He will “seize the day” as he has never done before. His trip to the countryside is the culmination of that impulse in Strether. The French countryside resembles a scene from a Lambinet painting he saw long ago—a painting, incidentally, that he regrets not having bought when he had the chance. If the painting represents a missed opportunity, he is recapturing it now.
At the end of Part 11 comes a dramatic reversal—a turning point in the plot—and the novel’s second climax. The first climax occurs in Part 5 when Strether suddenly realizes that Chad is living the life he himself missed out on, the one that he was too cowardly and too hesitant to seize for himself. He urges Bilham: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” From that point on, his worldview takes a decisive turn, and he decides he cannot follow through with his mission to bring Chad home.
In the second climax, the scales fall from Strether’s eyes a second time. He now sees the relationship between Chad and Mme. de Vionnet for what it is—an adulterous love affair. The big “scandal” may seem somewhat tame to modern readers, especially as Mme. de Vionnet is separated from her husband. In fact, the truth of the affair was probably an open secret among their social circle in Bohemian Paris. However, to mainstream Victorian sensibilities, it would have been quite shocking, all the more so because of the lady’s high social status and her greater age than Chad’s. To the conservative and high-minded Strether, it represents a grave impropriety on the part of them both. Strether did not want to see it, but now he has no choice.


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