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The Ambassadors | Themes

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America versus Europe

Throughout his career as a writer, Henry James was fascinated by the cultural contrasts between his homeland, the United States, and his adopted continent of Europe. In The Ambassadors, these contrasts exert an impact on virtually every turn of the plot and almost all characters. They are summed up in the clash between the values and standards of Woollett, Massachusetts, and Paris, the French capital, which is the setting for most of the novel.

James wrote his novels at a time when the United States had only recently come of age. In 1843, when the author was born, the United States still struggled to produce literature, painting, and music that could be reckoned on a par with the arts in Europe. When The Ambassadors was published in 1903, America could justly claim parity with Europe. In social terms, however, cultural conflict continued, as James testifies in so many aspects of his fiction. Such conflict plays a major role in the plot of The Ambassadors, where the plot is triggered by Mrs. Newsome's determination to rescue her son Chad from what she regards as the dangerous and demoralizing atmosphere of Paris. Mrs. Newsome's rigid outlook—generalized in the novel as the "Woollett perspective"—clashes with the more liberal, affirmative lifestyle in Europe overall and in Paris in particular.

Old Age versus Youth

Old age versus youth is a prominent thematic strand in The Ambassadors. At age 55, Lambert Strether could fairly be described, in the early 1900s, as approaching or even entering old age. At age 28, Chad Newsome is in the prime of youth. Thus, two of the novel's most important characters are juxtaposed with each other in terms of age.

However, these are not the only figures whose age establishes them as contrasting characters. The relationships of Chad with Madame de Vionnet and her daughter Jeanne, for example, are repeatedly interpreted (and often misinterpreted) concerning the characters' age. Lambert Strether adopts John Little Bilham as a protégé largely because he regards the young man as a surrogate son and does not want him to squander his youth—as Strether, somewhat mistakenly, believes that he himself has done. The theme of youth versus age is especially prominent toward the end of Book 2, Chapter 2, when Strether first glimpses Little Bilham on the balcony of Chad's apartment: "He was young too then ... young enough to be apparently amused at an elderly watcher ... there was youth to that. There was youth to the surrender of the balcony."

Money, Status, and Propriety

As described in the novel, the world of The Ambassadors, on both sides of the Atlantic, is one of social hierarchy and privilege. In Woollett, Massachusetts, Mrs. Newsome personifies social status, influence, and the privilege that accompanies wealth. For Strether, she is (at least in the first part of the novel) an estimable fiancée, to whom he is beholden for both his employment and his prospects. In Paris, Chad Newsome holds forth as an independently wealthy young socialite, whose resources and mastery of social grace command a wide circle of influential friends and acquaintances. Likewise, Madame de Vionnet, married to a wealthy man from whom she is emotionally estranged, has the latitude to pursue an independent but discreet affair with Chad Newsome.

Money and status, however, do not negate the prevailing norms of propriety. All the characters in the novel are acutely conscious of a set of social expectations that preclude behavior that might be regarded as improper—at least by turn-of-the-20th-century standards. Thus, Maria Gostrey comments to Strether that it would be inconceivable that Chad might have conducted an illicit affair in Cannes since that fashionable resort would not have tolerated such a liaison. Likewise, Little Bilham insists (falsely) to Strether that Chad's attachment to Madame de Vionnet is "virtuous," masking the truth that Chad is, in fact, having an affair with a married woman. Strether himself, after a long-sheltered stretch of his life as a widower, is somewhat self-conscious about appearing in the company of Maria Gostrey in Chester.

Missed Opportunity

The theme of missed opportunity pertains most directly to Lambert Strether, whose perspective constitutes the novel's main point of view. As Henry James makes clear in his preface to The Ambassadors, Strether's impassioned outburst to Little Bilham in Book 5, Chapter 2 ("Live all you can; it's a mistake not to") emanated from a real-life incident that the author identified as the "germ" of the novel. A haunted feeling that he has "missed the train," failing to take advantage of available chances and opportunities throughout much of his adult life, is what motivates Strether.

Moreover, the theme of missed opportunity had broader implications. For example, an important question that overhangs the novel's plot is whether Chad Newsome will take advantage of his chance for promotion and fortune in Woollett or remain in Paris with Madame de Vionnet. Another question is whether Strether will seize the moment and pursue a future with Maria Gostrey, who clearly loves him, or return to America and an uncertain future. James poses all these issues through his plot and characterization in the novel.

Marriage

Ever since Jane Austen's (1775–1817) novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), the theme of marriage had been a preeminent hallmark of the English novel. In The Ambassadors, Henry James makes several unexpected variations on this theme.

In the 1890s it was taken for granted in both the United States and Europe that the man in a courting couple or the husband in a marriage would be several years older than the woman. Yet, in The Ambassadors, Chad Newsome is at least 10 years younger than his mistress, Madame de Vionnet. Amusingly, the age difference leads to false inferences by Lambert Strether and Maria Gostrey, who assume that Chad's love interest is really Madame de Vionnet's youthful daughter Jeanne. Much to Strether and Maria's surprise, Jeanne is abruptly engaged to be married in an arranged match to another man.

In more conventional terms, the topic of marriage is seldom absent from the novel's plotline. Mrs. Newsome and Sarah Pocock, for example, are apprehensive that Chad may be entrapped by a bewitching European mistress. Mamie Pocock's marriage prospects are the topic of much discussion. After years of being a widower, Strether mourns the early death of his wife and continually contemplates his status as Mrs. Newsome's fiancé. Madame de Vionnet unexpectedly announces to Strether the engagement of her daughter Jeanne. From first to last in the novel, marriage seldom disappears from the scene.

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