The “ambassadors” of the title are Lambert Strether and Sarah Pocock, Americans from the provincial town of Woollett, Massachusetts, who are plunged into the cosmopolitan world of Paris. They come (first Strether, and later Sarah) as the representatives of Sarah’s mother, Mrs. Newsome, on a mission to rescue Sarah’s brother Chad from what they believe is an immoral life in Europe. Literally, they are the ambassadors of Mrs. Newsome and her private cause. However, in a figurative sense, they are the ambassadors for the hard-working, small-town, morally upright American way of life that is represented by Woollett. They bring their cultural values and assumptions with them to Paris—but Paris has its effect on them, too.
Protestantism and Catholicism
For Henry James, Protestantism is associated with America with its Puritan values and vigorous Calvinist work ethic, while Catholicism is an emblem of Europe with its romance, sense of the medieval, the mystical, and a sometimes lurid artistic beauty. In the novel, certain characters are associated with Protestantism (Mrs. Newsome and Waymarsh) and certain characters with Catholicism (Miss Gostrey and Mme. de Vionnet). Waymarsh sees the Catholic Church as corrupt and all-powerful—“the monster of bulging eyes and far-reaching quivering groping tentacles.” For him, Catholicism represents all that he hates about Europe. It is “exactly society, exactly the multiplication of shibboleths, exactly the discrimination of types and tones, exactly the wicked old Rows of Chester, rank with feudalism; exactly in short Europe.” Strether, on the other hand, is enchanted by the romance, beauty, and mysticism of Catholicism, a multifaceted, polyglot religion, steeped in centuries of history. For him, it represents all that he loves about the Old World.
At various points in the novel, Paris is likened to a “vast bright Babylon” and its inhabitants to “cannibals” or “savages.” Babylon was a wealthy and powerful city in ancient Mesopotamia, known in the Bible as the capital of a pagan land. Certainly to the inhabitants of New England in the late Victorian and Edwardian Eras, the Bohemian Paris would seem like a pagan society, a decadent den of immorality in which artists and actors behaved in unspeakably indecent ways.
In Chapter 10, Miss Barrace and Bilham playfully discuss which Americans hold up against the charms of pagan Europe and which allow themselves to be seduced. Bilham acknowledges that he himself has been, not only converted by the “savages,” but eaten alive by them: “I’m but the bleached bones of a Christian.” Waymarsh, notes Miss Barrace, is one who will never be converted. “He’s like the Indian chief one reads about, who, when he comes to Washington to see the Great Father, stands wrapped in his blanket and gives no sign.”
Strether unmistakably is one whose morals are quickly “corrupted” by the pagan beliefs of the natives. As he puts it humorously, in reference to his support of Chad’s “improper” relationship: “I’ve been sacrificing so to strange gods…. I feel as if my hands were embrued with the blood of monstrous alien altars—of another faith altogether.”
The “sacred rage” is Strether’s name for the fierce and uncompromising morality exemplified in his friend Waymarsh. It is a moral code that seemingly has its origins in the chivalric oath, but also governs small-town America in the late Victorian era. The sacred rage is admirable, but also limiting. When Waymarsh becomes infatuated with the married Sarah Pocock, his sense of moral superiority is tempered somewhat. He is able to liberate himself from his own uncompromising standards, and thus find true happiness.
Henry James was writing at the end of the Victorian era, a time of strict morality in America and England, and at the beginning of the more liberal Modern era. His writing reflects and new moral ambiguity in literature, a step away from didactic, morally simplistic tales to more morally complex, realistic fiction.
There are many surrogate parent/child mentoring relationships in the novel. Chad is like a father to Jeanne and arranges her engagement; Strether is like a father to Chad and attempts to helps ensure his relationship with Mme. de Vionnet; and Strether is fatherly toward Bilham and urges him to marry Mamie. Strether is “mothered” first by Mrs. Newsome and then by Mrs. Gostrey, who teaches him to “toddle” on his own in Europe. And, of course, Mme. de Vionnet, as the “older woman,” is a motherly figure to Chad, having made him over, according to Miss Gostrey, as all good French mothers will. These relationships mirror one another and invite comparisons
The Ambassadors: Metaphor Analysis