The Ambassadors | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Ambassadors | Preface | Summary



Henry James begins his preface to The Ambassadors by emphasizing a single specific scene as the core, or "germ," of the novel: Lambert Strether's impassioned outburst to Little Bilham in Book 5, Chapter 2. The occasion is a summertime, Sunday-afternoon garden party hosted by the eminent sculptor Gloriani at his Paris residence. Strether feels kindly toward Bilham, who has become a sort of protégé for the older man. "Live all you can," he exhorts Bilham, "it's a mistake not to."

What James calls the "germ" of his novel was a report that a friend of his, the novelist and editor William Dean Howells (1837–1920), had given much the same advice to a younger acquaintance, a writer named Jonathan Sturges (1864–1911), at a gathering in Paris hosted by the American painter James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). James commented on this report in his Notebooks for October 1895.

James continues by saying he rates The Ambassadors as the best of his works. He comments that, despite the order of publication, he wrote The Wings of the Dove before completing The Ambassadors. James is particularly pleased to place a mature hero, Lambert Strether, at the center of the novel. Regarding the pleasures of art, James says that it "plucks its material ... in the garden of life." He continues by remarking on the steps he took as a writer to construct Strether's particular character, background, situation, and motives.

James then turns to his use of Paris as the setting for most of The Ambassadors. He admits that the use of the city as the background for people's moral breakdowns is extremely common. However, James defends his decision to set his novel in Paris because, in the story line, he presents Paris through the prism of Strether's intensely reflective personality. Strether's periodic "gropings" afford the novel both unity and intensity. James also comments on his presentation of Chad Newsome and the character's dominating mother, who is literally absent but figuratively present throughout the novel.

James next discusses his decision to narrate the story in the limited third-person point of view, from Strether's perspective. He remarks that first-person point of view is "a form foredoomed to looseness." He contrasts drama with the novel with respect to the element of point of view. He then adds comments on the confidants he created for Strether, principally Waymarsh and Maria Gostrey. James concludes his remarks by commending the novel as the "most independent, most elastic, most prodigious" of literary forms.


James's preface offers some valuable insights into his compositional process, his theory of art, and his single-minded focus on Lambert Strether, the unlikely hero who is the protagonist of The Ambassadors. The author's first major observation is his emphatic declaration that Strether's exclamatory exhortation in Book 5, Chapter 2, is the "germ" of the novel and thus a key to one of its major themes. Strether, aged 55 in the 1890s, may be regarded (for the time period) as a character in late middle age haunted by the specters of loss and missed opportunity. For this reason, he urges Little Bilham, whom he has started to regard as a protégé, not to squander his youth, but rather to live life to the fullest. In an episode of situational irony, the novel will trace Strether's searches for meaning and understanding so fully and will portray Strether's growth so convincingly that the protagonist's fears about his having "missed the boat" will seem unfounded in the end. Instead, Strether's quiet reflections and steady expansion of sensitivity will position him as the most dynamic character in the entire novel.

In the preface, James delivers provocative comments on at least four major literary elements in the novel: character, plot, setting, and point of view. Perhaps his most detailed remarks relate to character and the process of constructing a fictional figure, also known as characterization. James seems aware that his protagonist, Lambert Strether, breaks the mold of a fictional hero. For one thing, Strether is old, at least by heroic standards. Also, he is noncommittal, at least at first sight. But James's interest in psychological realism, in the "gropings" of the inner life, firmly anchors his focus on Strether. The reader will find that James's hero does indeed undergo a gradual but expansive change in the course of the story—a trajectory that liberates him at the same time as it detaches him from the certainties of his New England heritage and life in Woollett, Massachusetts.

In this connection, James's comments on point of view in the novel seem particularly apt. Paradoxically, the writer's decision to employ third-person limited point of view moves us closer to Strether's mental and emotional processes than a first-person perspective might have provided. James stresses a direct link between his choice of point of view in the novel and the necessity for creating "confidant" characters such as Waymarsh and Maria Gostrey.

James notably emphasizes structure and "composition" in The Ambassadors—for example, in his statement, "One's work should have composition, because composition alone is positive beauty." This assertion foreshadows the highly elegant precision and balance in the novel's structure. Serialized as it was, The Ambassadors was divided into 12 approximately equal segments for its publication in the North American Review in 1903, each segment consisting of about 10,000 words. When we read the novel today, the two most notable climactic points are evenly balanced: the garden party of Book 5, Chapter 2 and Strether's recognition of Chad and Madame de Vionnet in their boat on the river in Book 11, Chapters 3 and 4. The fallout from each of these turning points occupies Book Sixth and Book 12, respectively. Furthermore, the hourglass structure of the novel is especially prominent precisely at the halfway point—at the conclusion of Book 6, when Strether's position regarding his mission from Mrs. Newsome reaches the polar opposite of what it had been at the novel's outset.

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