The Ambassadors | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Ambassadors | Symbols



Woollett, a fictional town in Massachusetts, symbolizes American provincialism (limited outlook or narrow-mindedness) and materialism in The Ambassadors. James often personifies the town in the novel. Woollett represents practicality and profit, as well as prejudice against outsiders or people with a different culture or tradition. Mrs. Newsome's rigid determination to pry her son Chad loose from Europe is only one of several manifestations of the Woollett mentality in the novel. Another is Waymarsh's antipathy to all things European. Finally, the Pococks—Sarah and her husband Jim especially—clearly illustrate the anti-European mindset of small-town but prosperous America.

Psychologically, the "Woollett outlook" toward Europe is perhaps best explained by reactions of defensiveness. Throughout the 19th century, Americans were culturally and socially looked down upon by Europeans. Such cultural condescension left scars and resulted in an attitude of proud antagonism. Notably, Woollett is often personified in the novel. Early on, Strether admits to Maria Gostrey, for example: "Woollett isn't sure it ought to enjoy. If it were it would." (Book 1, Chapter 1)


Throughout The Ambassadors, Strether visits gardens seeking quiet and refuge. However, it is this setting that entices him to ignore his role as "ambassador," and it is where he faces some difficult truths. The gardens of James's story symbolize the Garden of Eden from the story of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament's Book of Genesis. Like Eden, the gardens are a source of temptation and deceit in James's story. Upon arriving in England, Strether meets Maria Gostrey in the hotel garden. He is older, widowed, and engaged; she is younger and unmarried. He decides to put caution to the wind and explore the town with Maria, a stranger. For Strether, Maria is like the "forbidden fruit" that tempts Eve and ultimately leads to Adam and Eve's fall from innocence. The reader can sense a change in Strether's values when he reveals in this scene that he feels "disconnected from his past."

The gardens of France have an even stronger influence on Strether. Upon arriving in Paris, Strether escapes to the Luxembourg Gardens, where the feeling of "finding himself free" surprises him. However, the letters he holds from Mrs. Newsome, his fiancée, remind him of "the task at hand." Thus begins Strether's conflict between indulging in the "pleasantries" of the French culture and performing his duty—returning Chad, Mrs. Newsome's son, to America. The gardens tempt him to relax and enjoy, and this temptation leads him to disobey Mrs. Newsome, similar to the way in which temptation led Adam and Eve to disobey God and eat the "forbidden fruit." Later, at a garden party hosted by the artist Gloriani, Strether meets Madame de Vionnet, Chad's supposed lover. From the start, Strether adopts a favorable impression of de Vionnet and rationalizes that it must be her daughter Jeanne with whom Chad is carrying on the affair. This meeting is the point in which Strether becomes enticed by Parisian beauty and culture; it is also the first time Chad and Madame de Vionnet deceive him.

Intoxicated by the flowery beauty of France, Strether becomes less and less determined to follow through on Mrs. Newsome's request. His personal mission now is to get Chad to stay in Paris for life. The climax finds Strether seeking refuge in a garden once again, where he encounters Chad and Madame de Vionnet on a romantic outing. Standing in the garden along the shore viewing the couple rowing on the river, Strether is finally aware of their deception.


In The Ambassadors, Paris represents the polar opposite of Woollett. The French capital symbolizes liberal, open-ended, sophisticated, and pleasure-loving joie de vivre (French for "joy of living"). Admittedly, in some American eyes, life in Paris is too liberal, verging on the immoral or scandalous. However, in the main trajectory of the plot, Strether, schooled in Woollett's ways, finds Paris exhilarating, steadily widening his horizons and contributing to his zest for life.

James underlines the allure of Paris by including memorable descriptions of the city's historic landmarks: for example, the cathedral of Notre-Dame, the Luxembourg Gardens, and the Louvre. He uses real street names, such as the Boulevard Malesherbes and the Rue de Bellechasse. By contrast, Woollett is accorded no such descriptions. Readers are not even told where the community is situated in Massachusetts. The result is equivalent to juxtaposing history with abstraction. Paris is alive with lived culture; Woollett exists only as an economic force.

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