The Ambassadors | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Ambassadors | Book 12, Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

In his final farewell, Strether visits Maria Gostrey at her residence for breakfast. Although Strether declares he has decided to return home to America, Maria offers him the alternative of remaining in Europe with her. Strether politely declines. "There's nothing," she says to him, "I wouldn't do for you." "I know. I know," he responds, "But all the same I must go."

Analysis

The novel's final chapter leaves readers with a bittersweet tone. It is fitting that Maria Gostrey and Strether, with whom the tale began in Chester, should round off the action in Paris. Strether's relationships with women, always ambivalent, are of special relevance here, since Maria Gostrey virtually proposes marriage to him. As he recognizes, his prospects with Mrs. Newsome have expired. Yet he is still not ready to commit to a woman who is clearly devoted to, and admiring of, him. The novel concludes with typically Jamesian ambiguity:

She sighed it at last all comically, all tragically, away. "I can't indeed resist you." "Then there we are!" said Strether.

The quotation cited above offers a hint to guide readers' evaluation of the novel as a whole. In the novel's second-to-last sentence, Henry James signals that readers can regard the story as both a comedy and tragedy. On the one hand, Strether's hourglass reversal from "rescue" to "support" of Chad's relationship with Madame de Vionnet may be considered a comic structural feature. Likewise, Strether's experience of being "reborn" in Europe is thematically comic. On the other hand, Madame de Vionnet's likely abandonment by Chad after the novel's conclusion could be regarded as tragic, as could the demolition of Strether's marriage prospects with Mrs. Newsome. Literary critics, overall, are divided in their judgment. However, many commentators on James have endorsed a comic reading of the novel, despite the collapse of marriage prospects for Strether at the end of the narrative.

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