The Ambassadors | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Ambassadors | Book 5, Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Chad, occupied with social obligations, has dispatched Maria Gostrey to take care of Strether at the garden party, and she dutifully complies. As expected, they talk about Madame de Vionnet and her daughter. More than 20 years before, Maria Gostrey had indeed been acquainted with Madame de Vionnet: they had attended the same school in Geneva, Switzerland. Madame de Vionnet is thus 38 years old, or 10 years Chad's senior. She remains married to a brutish husband, but they live separately.

In the second half of the chapter, Chad and Strether discuss Madame de Vionnet. Chad is especially anxious that Strether should get to know her better. Chad calls her an extremely good friend but does not admit to any other type of relationship. All he will say is that detachment from Madame de Vionnet will constitute a sacrifice for him. Strether strikes a bargain with Chad. He will pursue a closer acquaintance with Madame de Vionnet if Chad agrees to return home when Stretcher judges the time is right. Chad readily agrees.

Analysis

If the reader were to look back on Book 5, Chapter 3 from later on in the novel, or at its conclusion, it may seem as if Chad's discussion with Strether is a masterpiece of double-talk or half-truths. In fact, he is having an affair with Madame de Vionnet, and it is very doubtful that he wishes to leave Paris, no matter how urgently his mother may desire him to return home. James leaves the reader free to make his or her speculations—putting his audience in pretty much the same position as Strether, who is compelled to infer from what Little Bilham called "vain appearance" in Chapter 1 of this book.

If we think of Chad as socially adept and resourceful, as Strether has indeed assessed him, the young man's strategy is not hard to fathom. Instead of rejecting Strether—his mother's emissary and his potential stepfather—he lavishes attention on the older man, correctly gauging Strether's comparative lack of sophistication as a product of Woollett and the family enterprises. Likewise, rather than attempting to drive a wedge between Strether and Madame de Vionnet, Chad correctly guesses that his friend's charm will win Strether over, and maybe even lead to romantic stirrings on the part of the older man.

Thus, the bargain that Chad and Strether agree to at the end of this chapter is curiously symmetrical. Strether promises to keep an open mind and cultivate a closer relationship with Madame de Vionnet. At the same time, Chad pledges to surrender to Strether at whatever point the latter chooses. Each party to the deal doubtless thinks that he will win out in the end.

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