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The Ambassadors | Plot Summary

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Summary

Preface

Henry James begins the preface by focusing on Lambert Strether's impassioned exhortation to Little Bilham to live life to the fullest (Book 5, Chapter 2). The author regards this incident, modeled on a real-life event, as the "germ" of his novel. He goes on to discuss the character of Strether and the confidants created for him: Waymarsh and Maria Gostrey. James singles out The Ambassadors as the best of his novels.

Book 1–Book 3

Lambert Strether, an American magazine editor in late middle age, is sent by his employer and fiancée, the wealthy businesswoman and socialite Mrs. Newsome, to Europe to "rescue" her son Chad, whom she believes is in a romance with an older Parisian woman. Strether first arrives in Chester in northern England, where he meets a longtime friend, a lawyer named Waymarsh, and makes the acquaintance of Maria Gostrey, an American expatriate. All three proceed to London and then to Paris. The reader gradually learns more about Strether's background: he is a widower who is now extremely dependent on the imperious and domineering Mrs. Newsome.

Strolling past Chad's apartment on the Boulevard Malesherbes one day, Strether glimpses a young man on the balcony. Curious, he enters the building. Chad is out of town, but Strether makes the acquaintance of Chad's friend, a young artist named John Little Bilham, who is staying in Chad's flat. When Maria Gostrey arrives in Paris, she too meets Little Bilham. Maria organizes a theater evening at the famous playhouse of the Comédie Française. Just when the performance is about to begin, an unfamiliar young man enters the theatergoers' box. It is Chad Newsome.

Book 4–Book 6

After the play, Strether and Chad hold their first long discussion. Strether candidly discloses his mission: to bring Chad home from Europe. Chad denies any entanglement with a woman. Little Bilham declares to Strether that Chad maintains a "virtuous attachment" to an older woman, Madame de Vionnet, who has an attractive, young daughter, Jeanne. Soon afterward, Chad arranges for Strether to attend a fashionable garden party hosted by a renowned sculptor, Gloriani. On this occasion, Strether meets Madame de Vionnet for the first time. He is impressed by both mother and daughter.

The sophistication of Paris gradually but steadily broadens Strether's horizons and stimulates his temperament. He also becomes increasingly fond of Little Bilham. With passionate enthusiasm, he exhorts the young man to live life to the fullest and not waste the best years of his life. This encounter in the garden comprises the first climax of the novel, which is balanced by a second turning point in Book 11. Soon afterward, Strether is invited to visit Madame de Vionnet at her residence. The two discuss Chad and his mother, Mrs. Newsome.

Book 7–Book 9

Seeking tranquility, Strether visits the great cathedral of Notre-Dame. He recognizes another visitor, Madame de Vionnet. The two have lunch together. Meanwhile, Mrs. Newsome sends an ultimatum from America. Her telegram orders Strether to return immediately, with or without Chad. She also intends to dispatch a new set of "ambassadors": her daughter Sarah Pocock, accompanied by Sarah's husband Jim and by Jim's younger sister Mamie. Strether negotiates a bargain with Chad to stay on for a bit in Paris.

The Pococks arrive in due course, after a suspenseful buildup. Madame de Vionnet reveals that she and Chad have arranged an engagement for young Jeanne, who will shortly be married. Strether reacts positively to Mamie Pocock but becomes increasingly apprehensive about Sarah's intentions and about his own relationship with Mrs. Newsome.

Book 10–Book 12

Chad hosts an elaborate party at his residence in honor of the Pococks, and Strether is once more favorably impressed by Chad's fluent social graces. Strether decides that Paris has had a transformative effect on Chad. Strether chats with Little Bilham, urging him to marry Mamie. Waymarsh, who has grown close to the Pococks, informs Strether that Sarah wants to meet him at last. He also reveals that he will accompany the Pococks on a sightseeing trip to Switzerland on the way back to America. The meeting between Sarah Pocock and Strether turns into a bitter confrontation, with Sarah denouncing Chad's behavior.

Strether seeks relief in a day trip to the countryside. More disillusioned than ever with Mrs. Newsome's "mission," he walks, naps, and prepares to dine at a riverside inn. Glancing at the river, he glimpses a small boat with two figures: a man and a woman. Suddenly, Strether recognizes them as Chad and Madame de Vionnet. In a flash, he realizes that Chad is, after all, having an affair with an older, married woman and that Little Bilham, acting out of loyalty, has misled him by calling the attachment "virtuous." This is the second great climax of the novel's plot.

After dinner, Strether returns to Paris on the same train with Chad and Madame de Vionnet. The following evening, he meets with Madame de Vionnet at her residence. She tries to persuade him to remain in Paris. However, Strether has now made up his mind to return home. In a series of farewells, he bids goodbye to Chad, urging him not to forsake Madame de Vionnet, and to Maria Gostrey, whose proposal of a continuing relationship Strether politely declines. Even though his future back in America is uncertain, he feels he must now depart from Paris.

The Ambassadors Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Lambert Strether arrives in Paris.

Rising Action

2 Strether tells Chad his mother wishes for him to come home.

3 Strether meets Madame de Vionnet and Jeanne.

4 Mrs. Newsome dispatches a second set of "ambassadors."

5 The Pococks, the new ambassadors, arrive in Paris.

6 Sarah harshly berates Strether at their meeting.

Climax

7 Strether realizes Chad and Madame de Vionnet are lovers.

Falling Action

8 Strether bids Madame de Vionnet and Chad farewell.

Resolution

9 Strether declines Maria's proposal and plans to go home.

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