The Ambassadors | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Ambassadors | Book 6, Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Madame de Vionnet reenters the scene. She tells Miss Barrace that she needs a private word with Strether. She then questions Strether about the sudden disappearance of Maria Gostrey. All he can tell her is that Miss Gostrey has been obliged to journey to the south of France because of the sudden illness of a friend.

Little Bilham and Strether chat about the Vionnets, with Strether testing the waters on the matter of Little Bilham and Jeanne. However, his speculations are in vain, since Little Bilham declines any interest in a marriage to Jeanne. Once again, the subject of marriage seems to lead to a dead end. When the subject comes to Chad, Little Bilham suggests that possibly Madame de Vionnet cares for the young man more than he does for her. It is possible, he suggests, that it may be time for Chad to return to America. Strether, however, strongly challenges this suggestion, asserting that Chad should be ashamed if he chooses to give her up.

Analysis

This chapter, which ends at the exact midpoint of the novel, is clothed with situational irony. In championing the "virtuous attachment" of Chad with Madame Vionnet, Strether arrives at exactly the opposite position from where the reader would expect him to be—given his Woollett background and his specific mission from Mrs. Newsome. It is clear that Paris has had a profound impact on Strether's outlook and temperament, and it is also plain that both Chad and Madame de Vionnet have enlisted his sympathies.

The allusion comparing Madame de Vionnet to the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra (c. 70–30 BCE; reigned 51–30 BCE) has several levels of meaning. William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) characterization of the storied Egyptian queen in the play Antony and Cleopatra (1606–07) is memorable, above all, for the courtier Enobarbus's celebrated description:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. (Act 2, Scene 2)

In Shakespeare's play, however, Cleopatra also stirs strong opposition from Romans as the seductress of the Rome's powerful political and military leader Mark Antony (83–30 BCE). It seems likely that James intended this ambiguity to be conjured by the allusion.

About the sudden disappearance of Maria, all Strether can divulge is what he knows: Maria is in the south of France because of the sudden illness of a friend. The reader will discover later that Maria uses a pretext in this chapter in order to mislead Strether.

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