Strether, James's protagonist, is the fiancé and an employee of Mrs. Newsome, a powerful and wealthy socialite and businesswoman in Woollett. When the story begins, the 55-year-old Strether arrives in England as an ambassador for Mrs. Newsome. His assignment is to "rescue" Mrs. Newsome's son Chad from a lengthy stay in Paris. It is from Strether's viewpoint that the events and the characters in the story are seen by the readers; everything and everyone is presented to the reader as Strether sees it. Ostensibly mild-mannered, Strether is a highly dynamic character in The Ambassadors. At the beginning of the story, he is full of regrets for his lost opportunities in life. However, he grows emotionally and intellectually under the influence of life in Paris, which he finds liberating. In the end, when he is offered the new prospect of a life abroad, he declines, choosing to return to America and his work.
Chad, a young man in his late 20s, has lived in Paris for some time. He has remained unresponsive to his mother's repeated requests to return home to America. Although he is somewhat enigmatic, Chad displays perfect manners and is socially fluent and sophisticated. This is a marked and improved change in Chad that Strether claims is the influence of Chad spending time in Europe. Technically, Chad may be regarded as the novel's antagonist. He allies himself with Strether to some degree, likely calculating that it is better to co-opt his mother's emissary rather than alienate him.
Madame de Vionnet
Madame de Vionnet is married but lives apart from her husband, a count. She is poised, stylish, attractive, and artful. She makes an especially powerful impact on Strether, who comes to sympathize with her and later realizes he has fallen in love with her. Madame de Vionnet is a strikingly ambiguous character. She elicits the reader's sympathy as well as Strether's support and admiration, but she is also evasive and manipulative. Thus, James's comparison of her to the wily and alluring Cleopatra in English author William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) play (Book 6, Chapter 3) is highly appropriate.
Maria Gostrey makes her living by serving as a guide for compatriots visiting Europe. She meets Strether at the outset of the story in Chester, a small city in England. She then serves as his confidante for much of the remaining action in the novel. Maria is portrayed as witty, savvy, and insightful. Although Strether grows increasingly fond of her, she is not 100 percent transparent with him. For example, she conceals the fact that Madame de Vionnet is having an affair with Chad. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Maria Gostrey would like to pursue a relationship with Strether, but he politely declines.
Little Bilham serves as Chad's house sitter when Chad is out of town. Strether, who meets Bilham before meeting Chad, develops an affection for Little Bilham, regarding him as a type of protégé. Strether is especially enthusiastic about the idea of Little Bilham's marrying Mamie Pocock. Little Bilham is an enigmatic character. On the one hand, he serves, like Maria Gostrey, as a confidant for Strether. On the other hand, also like Maria Gostrey, he is less than totally transparent with Strether. Strongly loyal to Chad, he conceals the fact of the latter's affair with Madame de Vionnet. He leads Strether to believe that Chad's relationship with the lady is a "virtuous attachment," when in fact it is a romantic affair.
Sarah's mother dispatches Sarah, along with her husband Jim and Jim's sister Mamie, as a second group of "ambassadors" to persuade Chad to return from Paris to America. Sarah Pocock is the most blatantly disagreeable, ill-tempered character in the novel. Intensely biased and inflexible, she embodies her mother's wishes with no variation. Her character shines in her hostile meeting with Strether in Book 10, Chapter 3.