John Little Bilham
Chad Newsome’s friend Little Bilham, often referred to by both his surnames on account of his short stature, is an intense, eager, and charming young art student living in Paris. He came out to Paris to paint, but the more he learns, the less confident he is of his talent, and seems likely to be a failure. Miss Gostrey says of him that he is the “ideal American”—he possesses “the happy attitude itself, the state of faith, and…the sense of beauty” that so many other young Americans lose when they try to make something of themselves. Strether agrees that little Bilham is “more American than anybody.” Little Bilham wins the affections of Mamie Pocock, and by the end of the novel appears, with Strether’s encouragement, likely to marry her.
Gloriani is a famous Italian sculptor living in Paris who becomes a member of Chad’s social circle. Strether goes to a party in Gloriani’s garden. The sculptor, whose very name invokes the idea of “glory” and glamour, is intimidating to Strether, but Chad seems very much at ease around him.
An American expatriate living in Paris, about thirty-eight years old, Miss Gostrey was educated in Europe and often acts as a helper or guide to newly arrived American expatriates. Neither young nor markedly beautiful, she has an expressive and agreeable face, and strikes Strether as “subtly civilized.” Miss Gostrey is a good judge of character and sizes Strether up immediately, seeming to know things he does not. Strether relies on Miss Gostrey for advice and support while he is in Europe. The two become very close friends, and it is apparent that they care deeply for one another. However, their relationship never becomes physically intimate.
M. de Montbron
M. de Montbron is the fiancé of Jeanne de Vionnet. He does not appear in the novel, but we learn through Mamie that he is very much in love with Jeanne.
Strether’s fiancée, Mrs. Newsome also provides the funding for the Woollett Review, a literary journal of which Strether is the editor-in-chief. She is a prominent, upstanding citizen of Woollett. In her fifties, with a “large, full life,” she tends to be nervous and high-strung due to all of her many pressures and commitments. Widowed ten years ago, Mrs. Newsome is in charge of the family business, a manufacturing company built by her husband. Business is booming and there is plenty of money, but Mrs. Newsome needs her son Chad to return home from Europe and help her run the advertising for the company. It is on this mission that she sends first Strether, then her daughter Sarah Pocock, as her ambassadors to Paris.
Chad, a twenty-eight-year-old New England manufacturing heir, has been living in Paris for three years and is romantically involved with Madame de Vionnet, an unhappily married countess ten years his senior. His mother and sister urgently want him to come home and help run the family’s manufacturing operation, but Chad is reluctant to leave Europe. His time overseas, and his relationship with the Countess, have refined the formerly selfish and immature Chad into a model gentleman and introduced him to the high society of Bohemian Paris. Strether, seeing how Chad has changed into something “wonderful,” risks everything to help the young man stay in Europe, where he can continue to lead his extraordinary life among the best and brightest society, with a truly distinguished woman at his side. In the end, however, Chad—motivated by promises of material gain—decides to return home to his provincial American town to manage the advertising for the family business, proving that he is after all, not as worldly or as deep as Strether thought.
Jim Pocock is Sarah Pocock’s husband and Chad’s brother-in-law. Obnoxious and gauche, he looks forward to a good time in Europe, and cares little about whether Chad comes home or not. Jim has given up all his authority over to his wife, and serves as a reminder of what Chad could have become, and still might become, if he returns to Woollett.
Mr. Pocock’s attractive and competent younger sister, Mamie Pocock embodies all the best of American maidenhood, just as the lovely Jeanne de Vionnet represents the ideal French girl. The family hopes she will marry Chad, but once the Pococks arrive in Europe, Mamie falls for Chad’s friend, little Bilham, instead.
Sarah Pocock is Chad’s older, married sister, aged thirty, who comes to Europe as Mrs. Newsome’s second ambassador. Mrs. Pocock 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,” feeling 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 infatuation with Waymarsh lends some humanity to her frigidly moral persona.
Lewis Lambert Strether
The protagonist, Lewis Lambert Strether is a middle-aged journal editor from Woollett, Massachusetts. He comes to Europe on a mission to retrieve the wayward son of his fiancée, Mrs. Newsome, whom the family believes to be in the clutches of a wicked woman. After crossing the Atlantic, however, Strether begins to be seduced by the charms of the Paris springtime. At age fifty-five, Strether feels his life has passed him by. Professionally, he has been a failure, and his personal life was marked by tragedy when he lost his wife and young son years before. His only claim to fame now is as the editor-in-chief of a staid, provincial literary journal financed by his rich, distinguished, matronly fiancée. Europe awakens him to the dreams of his youth and reminds him of ideals long forgotten—the sense of beauty; the appreciation of grace. He sees now that Chad’s lifestyle is far from the sordid and corrupt affair his family back in Woollett imagines it to be. Although by conventional standards it is immoral, Strether decides, 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. The Countess, and the rest of Parisian life, have not corrupted Chad, but refined him.
As Strether realizes what he will take Chad away from—a life of beauty and art in the circle of Parisian high society—and what he will bring him to—a vulgar life as a rich businessman in an American factory town—he finds he is unable to complete his mission as the “ambassador” of Mrs. Newsome. Failing in this mission costs him his livelihood and his future, and ultimately he learns that his rebellion has been in vain, as Chad decides to return home after all. But Strether returns home with an enlightened perspective, the sense of starting a new life that is finally and fully his own, and the comfort that he has done what his heart tells him is “right.”
Jeanne de Vionnet
The lovely young daughter of Madame de Vionnet, Jeanne de Vionnet represents the ideal jeune fille (young woman) of Paris. Strether at first suspects that Chad is in love with her, but then he realizes it is her mother who has entranced the young man. Chad helps arrange Jeanne’s engagement to M. de Montbron.
Countess Madame Marie de Vionnet
An unhappily married countess, aged thirty-eight, Madame de Vionnet is Chad’s lover in Europe. Half French and half English and educated in Geneva with Miss Gostrey, Mme. de Vionnet is a true femme du monde (woman of the world). She is a woman of beauty, grace, and breeding, and her influence has seemingly transformed Chad from an immature, selfish young roué into a refined gentleman. Although separated from her husband, she will never divorce, and her future with Chad is uncertain. However, she is desperately in love with Chad, and begs Strether to help her keep him. Strether falls in love with Madame de Vionnet, and agrees to “save” her if he can. Ultimately, however, he is unable to convince Chad to stay in Paris.
Waymarsh is a well-known American lawyer, about forty-five years old, from the town of Milrose, Connecticut. Waymarsh is in Europe to recover from severe mental exhaustion. While he is very successful and makes a large income, he has overworked himself to the point of almost having a nervous breakdown. His personal life is also in a poor state. Married at thirty, he has not lived with his wife for fifteen years, and she lives in hotels, travels Europe, paints her face, and writes her husband abusive letters.
An impressive-looking man with fiery dark eyes, Waymarsh reminds people of a grand American statesman, an ancient Hebrew prophet, or a noble Indian chief. Unlike Strether, but like Sarah Pocock, Waymarsh dislikes Europe and disapproves of what he sees as decadent European values. With his fierce moral code—his “sacred rage”—he serves as a foil for Strether. Waymarsh’s flirtation with the very married Sarah Pocock tempers his sense of moral superiority and liberates him from his own uncompromising standards.
The Ambassadors: Character Profiles
John Little Bilham