Literature Study GuidesThe AmbassadorsBook 2 Chapters 1 2 Summary

The Ambassadors | Study Guide

Henry James

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

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Summary

Chapter 1

The scene shifts from Chester to London, where Lambert Strether and Maria Gostrey go one night to the theater. Beforehand, the characters dine together. As he observes Maria, Strether compares her in his mind with Mrs. Newsome, his employer—and also his fiancée—back in Woollett. His comparison favors Maria, although Strether feels almost reverential about Mrs. Newsome. The dinner with Maria Gostrey strikes Strether as a novel experience since he had married many years ago and then become a widower.

Maria and Strether discuss the latter's mission, which is to "rescue" Chad Newsome from Paris and bring him home to Woollett. Maria gently challenges Strether's assumptions about Chad's being held in thrall by a "wicked woman" and about the allure of Paris itself. The discussion broadens to include more of the Newsome family. Mrs. Newsome's husband, head of a prosperous business, has been dead 10 years. The only two children are Chad, age 28, and his older married sister Sarah, age 30. Thanks to the "big brave bouncing business," the family is very wealthy, although Stretcher declines to disclose exactly what product, or "vulgar article," has made the business so successful.

After the play, as the two theatergoers wait in the lobby for a cab, the discussion continues. Strether reveals that his mission has, at least in part, been motivated by a particularly critical moment for the family business and Chad's future. Chad's return to Woollett will allow him to profit from a special opening in the business. It is also Mrs. Newsome's intention for Chad to marry Mamie Pocock, the sister of Sarah's husband, Jim. At the end of their evening together, Maris Gostrey asks Strether what he stands to lose if his mission should fail. "Everything," he admits.

Chapter 2

The setting for this chapter—and the entire remainder of the novel—is Paris. Strether, accompanied by Waymarsh, has arrived from London two days before. At a bank, Strether collects his letters, four of which are from Mrs. Newsome. Strether takes a leisurely stroll that leads him to the Luxembourg Gardens, one of the city's most appealing sights, and he relishes the invigorating Parisian spring. His thoughts of the dominating, strong-willed Mrs. Newsome mingle with memories of the loss of his wife and of his young son, who died of diphtheria (rare today, a contagious disease involving the mucous membranes that causes difficulty breathing). The inviting charm of Paris contrasts with his feelings of regret over a missed opportunity.

Strether's winding path leads him to the Boulevard Malesherbes, an elegant avenue and the location of Chad's apartment. Strether catches sight of a young man smoking on the balcony of Chad's residence. Although the young man is not Chad, Strether grows curious and enters the building.

Analysis

Chapters 1 and 2 accomplish the challenging task of advancing the novel's plot and also providing critical exposition, or background. Book 2 exemplifies James's habitual technique of withholding information from the reader in order to allow the buildup of suspense and curiosity.

Significantly, Strether's detailed revelations to Maria Gostrey in Chapter 1 occur in the context of a play's performance at the theater. James, who seems to have regarded himself as a dramatist (he was severely disappointed when the audience jeered during the first performance of his play Guy Domville in London in 1895), is careful to have Strether reflect on the parallels between the actors and the audience. In addition, James provides an echo of "real life" (that is, the major plot strand of the novel) in the play's plot, which involves a "bad woman" leading a handsome younger man astray—an obvious echo of the way the people of Woollett now envision Chad Newsome's situation in Paris. The setting and action of Chapter 1 also furnish a foreshadowing of the actual introduction of Chad in the narrative, when he first appears, also in the context of a theater performance, in Book 3, Chapter 2.

Readers should view Strether's dinner and theater outing with Maria Gostrey within the historical and cultural context of the era. Although Strether may be considered unusually sheltered and reclusive by today's standards, the two characters were stretching the social conventions of the day by appearing out together at an evening function. They are neither married nor courting, and their difference in age might have raised eyebrows. It is equally significant that Strether confides such private details as the nature of his mission, his relationship with Mrs. Newsome, and his assumptions about Chad and the effects of Paris on the young man's character. We should recall that Strether has had only a brief acquaintance with Maria, although she has claimed some prior mutual acquaintances.

Readers can plausibly infer from the dialogue that Strether's motivation is an instinctive trust in Maria Gostrey's goodwill and sensible advice. This trust leads him to confide in a relative stranger—even though he refuses to disclose the mysterious product that is the source of the Newsome family riches. The reader never finds what the product is. (Some scholars have speculated that it is an alarm clock or a toothpick, while others, more irreverently, have identified it as a chamber pot.)

Throughout the discussion between Strether and Maria in Chapter 1, it is apparent that Maria harbors a more open, optimistic attitude. Strether, by contrast, seems imprisoned by the provincial, almost puritanical, biases of Woollett. Yet Strether's willingness to open up to Maria (with the exception of the mysterious article the Newsome's business produces) and his candid admissions about his dependence on the Newsome family (as well as his apprehensions regarding Sarah Pocock) signal that he possesses qualities of patience and tolerance. Strether is also imaginative. For example, he compares Mrs. Newsome to England's Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; reigned 1558–1603) and Maria to Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scotland (1542–87; reigned 1542–67). (The former had the latter beheaded over treason.) Strether also displays a sense of humor, which allows him to keep pace with Maria's bantering tone. Very generally, James broadcasts the hint that Strether and Maria might, in suitable conditions, make a good couple.

Chapter 2 takes the reader to Paris, where we, like Strether, are immersed in the "wonderful Paris spring." (Wonderful is an adjective that recurs on numerous occasions in the novel.) Youth and lost youth are at the thematic heart of this chapter as Strether traces his way on foot across the city. The theme of youth and maturity reaches a climax at the end of the chapter, when Strether observes the young man smoking on the balcony of Chad's apartment on Boulevard Malesherbes. Significantly, when Strether contemplates the alternative of consorting with Waymarsh, he chooses to enter Chad's apartment building to investigate the situation and circumstances of the unnamed young man.

James's prose style and his facility with figurative language are notable in numerous passages of The Ambassadors, but few are as celebrated as this description of Paris in paragraph 8 of Chapter 2, beginning with "It hung before him this morning, the vast bright Babylon ..."

Reading the passage aloud alerts us to James's skill with alliteration and assonance, while careful consideration of connotation and pointed contrasts obliges us to conclude that Paris, at this point, is a reservoir of ambiguity but also of potential. The city, for example, is likened to Babylon, a biblical byword for sin and excess. It is a "jewel" that is both brilliant and hard. Navigating the city is tortuous, for one can easily lose one's way because directions are muddled. In short, Paris is described exactly as Strether must perceive it at this point. Full of the negative prejudices of Woollett, yet open to the city's irresistible charm, Strether is on the cusp of a new experience of growth and maturation. Readers are left to wonder at this point if Strether will flourish in this environment. And, if he does, the question that arises is of what the long-term consequences for his relationships in America will be.

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