The Ambassadors: Part 11, Chapters 28-31
The next day, Strether receives a telegram from Mme. de Vionnet asking him to come for a visit. There in the telegraph office, sending his reply, he feels caught up in the typical tale of Paris, caught up in that great city where manners are more acute, morals more sinister, and life more fierce.
He reflects that he could meet Mme. de Vionnet in his own home, or in public somewhere, to create an attitude of sterner morality. However, he decides not to do so. His old idea that wrongdoers should suffer has melted away. His time in Paris has corrupted him somewhat, and now he is an idler, spending his days “lounging, smoking, sitting in the shade…and consuming ices.” He even fancies that he might look “demoralized and disreputable,” and that if the Pococks were to see him now, they would sense scandal in his very person.
Between nine and ten at night, he goes to see Mme. de Vionnet. In the hot night, only a few candles have been lit, and from outside he hears the sounds of Paris, “the smell of revolution, the smell of the public temper—or perhaps simply the smell of blood.” There is thunder in the air, and Mme. de Vionnet, dressed in old-fashioned clothes, with a black scarf around her throat, reminds him of a heroine going to the scaffold. As he looks around at the “glass and gilt and parquet” of her elegant apartment, he attempts to fix them in his mind—realizing that this will be the last time he will ever see these old and beautiful things, the last time he will ever see the lady herself.
Mme. de Vionnet, he reflects, is changeable without ever seeming to be capricious. She is different than she was the night before, but the change has harmony and reason in it. She seems to know that Strether was not fooled, the night before; that he now knows the sordid truth about her and Chad, that they are lovers. Now, he surmises, she wants to find out what difference this knowledge has made to Strether. She hasn’t spoken to him of Chad the last two times they met, but now, she pleads, she must bother him again on that subject.
Strether agrees to hear all that Mme. de Vionnet has to say, anxious to show that he has not been shocked by seeing her in such a compromising position with Chad. She, in turn, begs him not to hate her, and asks if there is any way he will stay in Europe. She knows she’s made a change in Strether’s life, so that he may now have no home to go back to. Worse, she’s upset Strether’s sense of decencies and possibilities.
“What I hate is myself—when I think that one has to takeso much, to be happy, out of the lives of others, and that one isn’t happy even then,” she mourns. “What it comes to is that it’s not, that it’s never, a happiness, any happiness at all, to take. The only safe thing is to give. It’s what plays you least false.”
Mme. de Vionnet breaks into tears, sobbing hopelessly. For the first time, she looks old to Strether, and seems as “vulgarly troubled, in truth, as a maidservant crying for her young man.” She’s terrified of losing Chad, but not only that, she’s afraid of the disgraceful person she is, and what Strether must think of her. She wanted him to think of her as “sublime,” but she is really, in her own estimation, “old and abject and hideous.” Strether reassures her that he thinks no such thing. And in truth, although he sees her weakness, he admires Mme. de Vionnet as much as ever.
Strether reassures the lady that there is something he can still do for her, one more thing that may help her case. Mme. de Vionnet doesn’t believe there is anything he can do—she knows she will be the loser in the end. She is only happy to know that, if things had been different, she and Strether might have been friends. She has wanted him, too.
“Ah, but you’ve had me!” Strether declares, then takes his leave. This will be the last time he sees her.
Strether has not seen Chad in five days. He expected a call from him, but has received none. Meanwhile, Strether passes the time with Miss Gostrey, enjoying the sights of Paris. He has a feeling of comfort and simplicity with her. The rest of the world—including Chad—seems complex and bristling, while he and Miss Gostrey are like “Babes in the Wood.” He spends these lazy summer days postponing everything— postponing what seems like his own death. Back in Woollett, there will be a reckoning: his relationship with Mrs. Newsome, and his career, will almost certainly be over.
Still, he has one more question to ask Chad, and stays in Paris for the chance of meeting him again.
Arriving one evening at the home of Miss Gostrey, Strether senses immediately that she has some news for him. In fact, she has received a visit from Mme. de Vionnet, whom she had been avoiding all this time. She reveals that Mme. de Vionnet is greatly distressed, having not seen Chad for some days. Strether is surprised; he had assumed that Chad and Mme. de Vionnet were off together on another romantic excursion, and now he finds quite otherwise. The situation strikes Strether as ironic. Chad’s breakup was just what he came to Europe to cause to happen, and now that it appears imminent, he wishes to prevent it.
Mme. de Vionnet has told Miss Gostrey, also, about the chance meeting in the country. Now, Miss Gostrey admits, she had known all along that there was a physical relationship between Chad and Mme. de Vionnet. In fact, the true reason she left Paris when Mme. de Vionnet arrived was so that she wouldn’t be forced to lie if Strether asked her opinion about Chad’s attachment to the lady.
Why, Miss Gostrey wonders, did Strether not guess that Chad and Mme. de Vionnet were lovers? He admits that it was the Countess’s beauty—her loveliness in both person and personality—that fooled him into believing in her virtue. And also, she was older than Chad, and came from such a different world, that he didn’t think it possible. “Those things are nothing when a woman is hit. It’s very awful. She was hit,” observes Miss Gostrey. Her words point to the human vulnerabilities in the femme du monde, the weaknesses that Strether did not see when he was idealizing the Countess.
Miss Gostrey reveals, finally, that Mme. de Vionnet is sad to have lost Strether. She wishes they could have been friends, that he could have admired her. But, Strether laughs, they indeed could have been friends, and that’s exactly why he is going. “Poor dear thing,” Miss Gostrey sighs, referring to Mme. de Vionnet. “Are you as sorry for her as that?” Strether asks. She responds: “I’m sorry for us all!”
Strether decides he must see Chad without any further delay. After leaving Miss Gostrey’s, he drops into a café, then goes straight to Chad’s home on Boulevard Malesherbes. Approaching the house, he is reminded of his first visit there, when he saw Little Bilham on the balcony. This time, it is not Little Bilham but Chad himself whom he sees above. Chad calls out to him joyfully.
Chad has apparently been away, in England, as it turns out. Strether marvels at his extraordinary life. As Chad invites Strether to stay there for the night, Strether thinks for a moment that he might even stay longer; he could stay there indefinitely. But it is only for a moment, and then he recovers his original plan, which is to say goodbye.
Then, Strether tells the young man what he has come to say—that Chad will be “a brute” and “a criminal of the deepest dye” if he forsakes Mme. de Vionnet. He urges Chad to stay with her until he has gotten all he can from her, which, he implies, will be forever. Chad has been changed for the better by his time with the lady, and she can do much for him still. He owes her everything, far more than he can ever repay.
Chad agrees with this, and denies that he is tired of Mme. de Vionnet. However, he reveals that he has been to London to look into the art of advertising and what it could do for the family business. Advertising, he declares, “really does the thing, you know…It’s an art like another, and infinite like all arts…. In the hands, naturally, of a master. The right man must take hold. With the right man to work it c’est un monde [it’s a whole world].” Chad feels he would be the “right man.” In any case, he adds, he would like at least to find out how much money there is in the business—that is, he’d like to know the amount of the “bribe” before he kicks it away.
Strether leaves Chad, feeling deeply shocked.
Within two days, Strether is prepared to leave Paris. He stops at Miss Gostrey’s home for a farewell breakfast. He finds her home charming and comforting, “a haunt of ancient peace.” She replies, “I wish with all my heart I could make you treat it as a haven of rest.” But Strether cannot stay there with Miss Gostrey; he’s not, in the end, in harmony with the Parisian life, as she is. He takes things too hard, and it makes a fool of him.
The two of them discuss Chad. Strether explains to Miss Gostrey that the young man has apparently come back from London with a new attitude, and he is likely to leave Mme. de Vionnet to take up his place in the family business. He has a good business sense, inherited from his father. Incidentally, he asks, would Miss Gostrey like to know what it is that they produce in the factory at Woollett—the little ridiculous object he’d not wanted to name to her before? No, she says—she’s done with the products of Woollett, and doesn’t care to know now.
So, ironically, Chad may leave Europe after all that Strether has done. Strether risked everything to “save” Chad— to save him from the shallow existence of a factory executive in a provincial town, and, more urgently, from the moral infamy that will come with dishonoring and abandoning a woman of true merit. But now, there is nothing more he can do.
As for himself and Mrs. Newsome, Strether says that it is over for them. Too much has happened. He has changed for her, and he now sees her for who she is. “What then do you go home to?” Miss Gostrey asks. “I don’t know. There will always be something,” he replies.
Strether looks about him. He sees the care and service Miss Gostrey could provide for him, if he were to stay with her, if he were to choose her. And yet, he will not choose her. “There’s nothing, you know, I wouldn’t do for you,” she tells him. All the same, he must go. It would not be right of him to stay and gain something for himself out of the whole affair. At heart, Miss Gostrey understands him. He must be right; he cannot be otherwise, and after all, this is why she will always love him.
Analysis of Part 12
After the climax at the end of Part 11, the rest of the story is dénouement. Strether has gone through his full development. Coming to Europe opened his eyes to the negative aspects of his home culture—it seemed vulgar and provincial, narrow-minded and dull, while Europe was cultured, worldly, liberal, and sparkling with life. Now, after his recent experiences, Strether takes a more realistic view. He neither despises Woollett—which after all, as Bilham notes, has people who are just as good as those in Paris—nor idealizes Europe. After all, even sublime countesses can cry like vulgar maidservants over a love affair gone wrong.
At the beginning of the novel, Strether is unable to imagine that whatever lover Chad could have would be anything but “base, venal—out of the streets.” When he meets Mme. de Vionnet, he assumes that Chad’s relationship with her must be pure, because she is simply too sublime for it to be otherwise. By the end of the novel, Strether realizes that although by conventional standards it is immoral, Chad’s romantic attachment to the beautiful Countess is still a “virtuous” one, because her love for him—and the good that she has done for him—make it so. Relationships are complex, just as the people in them are, and may have elements of both vulgarity and sublimity.
The important thing, in the end, is not to do what conventional morality might dictate, but to do what, in one’s heart, one feels to be “right.” Strether’s highly developed conscience is what prevents him from staying in Paris, after all he has enjoyed there—he knows it would not be right of him to gain anything from the situation. He came over to Europe on Mrs. Newsome’s mission, on Mrs. Newsome’s money. Even if he will not now marry her, he honors his ex-fiancée enough not to take up with another woman her patronage enabled him to meet. Miss Gostrey understands this, and it increases her admiration for him.
Chad, however, lacks Strether’s high sense of honor. After he has his fun with Mme. de Vionnet, and after all she has done to groom him as a gentleman, he is willing to drop her—to be what Strether considers a “brute” and a “criminal”—in order to go cheerfully home to take up the art of advertising. Strether cannot be bribed, but Chad can. However, it’s not only for the money that he will do it; there are other reasons. For one, he wants to please his family (ironically, a new filial desire that Mme. de Vionnet’s influence has fostered in the formerly obstinate young man). For another, Chad has genuine business sense that puts him truly at home in the industrial arena that to Strether seems so cheap and vulgar. To Chad, advertising “c’est un monde”—a whole world unto itself. In other words, Chad is not at all the worldly and urbane gentleman he appeared; he’s not deep. The world of marketing toothpicks, or buttonhooks, or whatever it is that Woollett produces, is more than enough world for him.
As for Strether, he has lost everything he had—his livelihood, his future with Mrs. Newsome, and his title as editor of the Review, which gave him his only distinction in the community of Woollett—for a futile cause, since Chad will return home anyway. And by leaving Paris, Strether even gives up the friends he had and the life he might have known with Miss Gostrey as his partner. But in exchange for all this loss, he has gained many things, too. He has a new sense of self-respect, a sense of honor, a sense of independence, and of being his own person. He has opened his mind and can think for himself, free of the prejudices and delusions he had when he first arrived at Chester. For the first time, he has a life of his own, and he knows how to live it for all it is worth.