Literature Study GuidesThe AmbassadorsBook 1 Chapters 1 2 Summary

The Ambassadors | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Ambassadors | Book 1, Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

Lambert Strether arrives at his hotel in Chester, a small city in northern England near Liverpool, where he had disembarked from his transatlantic voyage from his home in Woollett, Massachusetts. To Strether's relief, his friend Waymarsh, whom he was supposed to meet in England, has been delayed. Strether soon becomes acquainted with Maria Gostrey, an expatriate American residing in Paris, who overhears Strether inquiring about Waymarsh and claims an acquaintance with the man. Strether and Maria go for a stroll in Chester, and at one point, Maria catches Strether incessantly looking at his watch. When she points out the action, Strether confesses to Maria that he is" always considering something else ... than the thing of the moment." Strether takes Maria up on her offer to be his guide in Europe, and the two walk arm in arm back to the hotel, entering just as Waymarsh arrives.

Chapter 2

Strether, Waymarsh, and Maria dine together. Later, when they all have retired to their rooms, Strether and Waymarsh, who cannot sleep, convene on the grounds in the middle of the night. Waymarsh, an American lawyer who has fled an unhappy marriage and now spends much of his time in Europe, converses at some length with Strether. Waymarsh, now in Europe for three months, does not feel settled and wishes to return to America. It appears that Strether has made the journey to Europe on a specific business mission assigned by his employer, the wealthy socialite and businessperson Mrs. Newsome. Strether, however, remains somewhat cryptic about disclosing the full nature of his assignment. Waymarsh agrees to accompany Strether to Paris.

Analysis

These chapters afford us our first glimpses of three of the novel's most important characters: the protagonist Lambert Strether, his old friend Waymarsh, and his new acquaintance Maria Gostrey. Considering that one of Henry James's overarching themes in his fiction is the comparison and contrast between American and European culture, we may notice at once that all three figures at the start of The Ambassadors hold contrasting ideas and attitudes about Europe and life abroad. Strether appears comparatively neutral, although conventionally narrow, stringent notions about European culture have presumably been ingrained in him. Waymarsh is somber and predominantly negative about Europe, despite the fact that his life there allows him to disengage from his unhappy marriage. Maria Gostrey, by contrast, seems positive, as signaled by her unofficial status as a "guide" to visiting Americans.

Another theme that begins to take shape in Chapter 1 is one of missed opportunity when Maria, noticing Strether regarding his watch numerous times, remarks on Strether's inability to enjoy himself. Strether cannot pause to enjoy the moment because of his preoccupation with other things, which hints to the reader that Strether likely has many regrets over time he has lost.

As critic Christopher Butler observes, The Ambassadors "is very largely a series of conversations." It is significant that the very first sentence of the novel reports "Strether's first question, when he reached the hotel ..." Question and answer will comprise much of the dialogue in the tale, and Strether's changing views, dependent on the answers he discovers to his questions, will constitute much of the interest that James generates in plot and characterization. In this regard, it is notable that very soon after the novel's beginning, James characterizes Strether's frame of mind in a crisply paradoxical fashion. As Strether considers Waymarsh's momentary delay in meeting him, James describes his hero's ambivalent frame of mind this way: "There was detachment in his zeal and curiosity in his indifference." At the outset of the novel, then, we start with a protagonist who may lean in a variety of directions. Which way he will be inclined, and what choices he will make, constitute one of the most important features of James's narrative.

Strether's full name is Lewis Lambert Strether, and Maria points out the likeness of Strether's name to the name of the novel Louis Lambert (1834) by the French author Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). James's allusion to this text asks the reader to keep in mind the similarities between Strether and his namesake, Balzac's Louis Lambert. Balzac's character is a young visionary engaged to a mademoiselle. Lambert suffers a mental breakdown right before the wedding day, and thus cannot wed because he has lost touch with reality.

Some readers may question why James set the novel's opening scenes in Chester, the county seat of Cheshire in northwest England. Located near Liverpool, Britain's most important port in the northwest, Chester had an ancient Roman heritage and a picturesque ambience. The town's name itself is derived from the Latin castra, meaning "military camp." In the 1800s, many buildings and decorations in the city were designed in black and white, and a distinctive group of shops named the Rows featured upper stories projecting over lower ones at street level.

James artfully contrasts Strether's two "confidant" figures: Maria Gostrey and Waymarsh. The former is presented as alert, sophisticated, skeptical, and sympathetic; the latter as morose, cynical, and curmudgeonly. The revelation in the first paragraph of Chapter 1 that Strether is "not wholly disconcerted" that Waymarsh will arrive later hints to the reader that Strether and Waymarsh have opposite personalities. Significantly, Strether seems receptive to both characters. In fact, the more we observe his interactions with others, the more our impression of Strether as patient and forbearing is reinforced.

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