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Literature Study GuidesThe AmbassadorsBook 5 Chapters 1 2 Summary

The Ambassadors | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Ambassadors | Book 5, Chapters 1–2 | Summary



Chapter 1

Soon afterward, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, Chad arranges for Strether to attend a fashionable garden party hosted by the renowned sculptor Gloriani at his Paris residence. Despite feeling somewhat self-conscious, Strether is fascinated by the artistic and elegant guests at the party. Once again, Strether is awed by Chad's social fluency and graces. He chats with Little Bilham about the prospect of meeting Chad's "special friends," Madame de Vionnet and her daughter, for the first time. Chad has said little about them, a reticence that only increases Strether's curiosity. Little Bilham confides to Strether that Madame de Vionnet's husband is alive, but becomes vague when Strether explicitly concludes that Chad must be in love with the woman's daughter. Chad's friend Miss Barrace joins Strether and Little Bilham, and the three banter cheerfully until, at length, Chad approaches the group with the apparent intention of escorting Strether to meet Madame de Vionnet and her daughter.

Chapter 2

At his meeting with Madame de Vionnet, Strether is favorably impressed. He notices that she looks young for her age, dresses elegantly in black, and speaks English with charming intonation. Strether chats with her for a while on a garden bench. She informs him that she and Miss Gostrey are acquainted. Strether wonders if he could possibly have met Madame de Vionnet in Woollett, considering Woollett's provincial character. Such an encounter seems very unlikely to Strether.

Soon, however, Madame de Vionnet is spirited away by a duchess, and Strether is left alone to contemplate the party and the party guests. A short time later he is joined by Little Bilham, to whom he confides his impressions and feelings. In an outburst of emotion, Strether exhorts his younger acquaintance to "live all you can; it's a mistake not to." Strether feels as if he has "missed the train," but such a destiny need not befall Little Bilham.

A few moments later, Chad reappears to introduce Madame de Vionnet's daughter Jeanne to Strether. Her youth and prettiness convince Strether than Jeanne is indeed the love interest that is keeping Chad in Paris.


Ever since Chad's first appearance in the box at the Comédie Française at the end of Book 3, James has stressed—at least through the perspective of Strether—how sophisticated and comfortably well-mannered Chad has grown to be. The beginning of Chapter 1 in Book 5 supports this impression, presenting Chad as the orchestrator of sophisticated entertainment for his social circle, this time at the "queer old garden" of his friend, the renowned sculptor Gloriani. James employs a classical allusion—panem et circenses (Latin for "bread and circuses")—to suggest that Chad has acquired something of the aura of an ancient Roman emperor in his generosity of spirit. James follows up this characterization of Chad with a vivid description of the party venue, which some critics have suggested may be modeled on the Paris residence of the American painter James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903).

Strether's acute awareness of Chad's conversational ease and social graces touches off a further round of reflections concerning Strether's own self-consciousness in Paris (he wonders if he has "passed," or made the grade), as well as some fresh meditations on the striking contrasts between Paris and Woollett.

Much of the party chitchat involving Strether, Little Bilham, and Miss Barrace is exactly that: idle but socially acceptable banter. In this respect, James's reports of casual party conversation may seem curiously contemporary. Once in a while, however, what may appear to be a chance, inoffensive remark may take on deeper resonances, as when Little Bilham comments to Strether in Chapter 1, "What more than a vain appearance does the wisest of us know? I commend to you ... the vain appearance." The fact is that Strether will make several mistaken inferences from appearances at the garden party—most prominently that Chad's love interest in Jeanne de Vionnet, as opposed to her mother. Strether will also mistakenly conclude that he has "missed the train," losing out on life, just at the very moment in his life that he is undergoing a significant broadening of his horizons and experience.

Strether's emotional outburst to Little Bilham in Chapter 2 ("Live all you can; it's a mistake not to") is commonly regarded as the first of the two climactic points in The Ambassadors (the other is Strether's sight of Chad and Madame de Vionnet on a boat outing in Book 11). This statement is the "germ" for the story that James notes in his preface from a conversation he overheard between novelist William Dean Howells (1837–1920) and the young writer Jonathan Sturges (1864–1911). In The Ambassadors, this conversation between Strether and Bilham harkens back to Strether's earlier comment to Maria in Book 1 about his inability to enjoy the moment. Strether is witnessing now what Paris has done for Chad, which is given him new life.

It is important to note, however, that whereas the moment at the garden party in Book 5 closely links to the theme of lost opportunity in the novel as a whole, Strether's regret at "missing the train" in his own life is juxtaposed, in the long run, with his own growth as a fully dynamic character. Strether, in fact, is portrayed as far more rounded and sensitive than Little Bilham, who seems wooden by comparison.

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