Literature Study GuidesThe AmbassadorsBook 11 Chapters 3 4 Summary

The Ambassadors | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Ambassadors | Book 11, Chapters 3–4 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 3

A few days after his meeting with Maria Gostrey, Strether catches a train for an all-day outing from Paris to the countryside. He leaves his excursion largely to chance. During much of the day, his memories are of a rural scene depicted by the French romantic painter Émile Lambinet (1813–77). Many years ago Strether saw the Lambinet painting in a Boston art gallery but could not afford to purchase it. He walks a long distance, considers anew what has happened to him in Europe over the last three months, and then prepares to dine at a village inn before returning to Paris. As he awaits dinner, Strether stares out at the river.

Chapter 4

As Strether gazes at the river, a small boat comes into view. In it, a man is rowing, and the woman, seated in the stern, holds a parasol. Strether is amazed to recognize Chad and Madame de Vionnet. Unaccountably, they have chosen the same small region of the countryside as he has for an escape from the city. More momentous, though, is what their posture and reactions reveal about their relationship. In a flash, Strether realizes that they are lovers, rather than involved in what Little Bilham described as a "virtuous attachment."

When the three characters greet each other, a great deal of time is spent commenting on the "charming chance" of this coincidence. Madame de Vionnet is plainly agitated. The three return to Paris on the same train, with Strether uneasily aware that the others lied to him and that he has interrupted an intimate rendezvous.

Analysis

Chapters 3 and 4 culminate in the second climax, or emotional turning point in the novel (the first was the scene in the sculptor Gloriani's garden in Book 5, Chapter 2). Although James has employed Maria Gostrey to foreshadow that Chad and Madame de Vionnet may be away from the city for a few days, it seems highly improbable that the couple should have chosen the same spot as Strether for a rural retreat. However, as the reader looks back over the long trajectory of Strether's assumptions and inferences, it also seems improbable in hindsight that he has ignored so many hints and signals about the truth: Chad is having an affair with Madame de Vionnet, an older, married woman. Strether has simply closed his eyes to such significant information as Chad's lack of romantic interest in Jeanne or Madame de Vionnet's passionate urgency to keep Chad in Paris.

James takes special pains in these chapters to remind the reader that his story is a work of art, a fictional tale. Note the emphasis on the Lambinet painting, for example, and the allusion to the French (then) contemporary writer, Guy de Maupassant (1850–93), whom James greatly admired. Notice as well Strether's internal comment on the scene early in Chapter 4: "It was as queer as fiction, as farce, that their country could happen to be exactly his." Also, notice that toward the end of Chapter 3, James lyrically mingles the visual arts with performing arts as vehicles for Strether's experience: "For this had been ... the spell of the picture—that it was essentially ... a scene and a stage ... The play and the characters had, without his knowing it till now, peopled all his space for him."

In this emphasis on fiction as a verbal counterpart to the visual and performing arts, James highlighted throughout his career his profound conviction that the novelist or storyteller was an artistic creator or shaper. He titled one of his most successful novels The Portrait of a Lady (1881), for example. One of his most important magazine articles about the novel was titled "The Art of Fiction" (1884). Literary critics have often discussed James's affinity for the arts across a broad spectrum.

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