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The Ambassadors | Context

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Psychological Realism

Henry James's lifetime saw the emergence of psychology as an academic discipline and a professional specialty in medicine. The prime mover in this sea of change was the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Also, not far behind in bringing psychology to the forefront of medicine and learning was Henry James's older brother, the psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910). William James, in particular, blended psychology with philosophy in his development of the philosophical school known as pragmatism. Pragmatism emphasizes belief in practical utility and a changing reality in the universe, rather than in a fixed, universal set of truths.

In European and American literature, psychological realism became a dominant force in the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Influential European authors included the French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), the English novelist George Eliot (1819–80), and the Russian novelists Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–81) and Ivan Turgenev (1818–83). In America, one of the pioneers of psychological realism was Henry James.

The hallmarks of psychological realism in fiction are relatively easy to identify in James's The Ambassadors (1903).

  • The narrative is more concerned with the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters than with the external events of the plot.
  • The author advances the story through intensive exploration of the characters' psyches.
  • The events of the plot are dependent upon, and usually exist within, the workings of the characters' minds.
  • The close focus on the contemplation of the protagonist (Lambert Strether) means that scenes may take longer to read than they might take to play out in real time.
  • The narrative unfolds in the order in which the characters remember or reflect on events instead of chronological order.

Henry James's Prose Style

The complexity of James's prose, a style often admired as elegant but also parodied as convoluted and labored, requires focused attention. James's style is intimately linked, especially in the novelist's late period, to his abiding concern for psychological realism. His typically lengthy sentences often strive to present the rapid, overflowing thoughts of his characters as these thoughts occur moment by moment in the mind. James's typical techniques include:

  • Abstract nouns (intangible items such as ideas or feelings: democracy or love), intransitive verbs (action that is complete without a direct object: The sun shines), and the passive voice (sentence structure where the subject receives the action of the verb: The ball was thrown by the girl versus The girl threw the ball [active])
  • Complex, hypotactic sentence structure (subordinate clauses [groups of words introduced by words such as when or because] depending on the main clause: When it began to rain, Henry opened his umbrella)
  • Frequent use of negatives, often yoked together using the rhetorical device known as litotes, as in the phrase "not insensitive"—a type of double negative that produces understatement
  • French words and phrases to enhance the literary element of setting
  • Italics for emphasis in both dialogue and narrative passages
  • Inverted word order, such as "Strange and beautiful to him was her quiet soft acuteness." (Book 7, Chapter 1)
  • Resumption of a sentence through repetition of the subject after a lengthy digression or appositional phrase, such as "Waymarsh, who had had letters yesterday, had had them again to-day, and Waymarsh suggested in this particular no controlled impulses." (Book 2, Chapter 2)

America on the World Stage

The year 1898, five years before the publication of The Ambassadors, marked a milestone in the development of the global power and presence of the United States. In a conflict that lasted barely three months, the United States emerged victorious in the Spanish-American War (1898), which ended the Spanish presence in the Americas and led to the gain of U.S. territories in the Pacific and Latin America. Hostilities had erupted on the island of Cuba, but the repercussions of the war spread far beyond the Caribbean. The United States solidified its dominance in the Western Hemisphere, as well as gaining sovereignty over the Philippines, one of Spain's prize possessions in the Pacific. In a separate but complementary set of developments, the United States was also able to annex the Hawaiian Islands (1898). Suddenly, the United States leaped from the status of a prosperous but sheltered, isolationist, junior-level country to the position of an international powerhouse.

It is thus significant that one of Henry James's enduring themes in his fiction—the historical, social, and cultural contrasts between the United States and Europe—was undergoing a radical change in the closing years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century. For one thing, the Pacific Rim—particularly the countries of Asia that lie on the Pacific Ocean—took on new relevance, vying now with Europe in strategic and economic importance for American interests. For another, American subordination to the achievements of European culture now began to seem increasingly old-fashioned, if not embarrassing. New realities had taken hold. Since the mid-1800s, Americans have competed successfully with European claims to achievement in literature, music, and the visual arts.

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