Henry James – The Ambassadors (1903)

SUMMARY:

Lambert Strether is supposed to meet his friend Waymarsh at a hotel, but Watmarsh is late, and in the interlude Strether meets Miss Gostrey. Strether has gone traveling with Waymarsh under the pretense of showing him Europe (he eventually does get seduced by the allure of Paris and by Mme Barras), but really with a mission–given to him by Woolett, MA socialite, his fiancé Mrs. Newsome–to ‘rescue’ Chad Newsome from his affair with the older Marie de Vionnet. Strether is himself attracted to Marie, and is at first unsure whether Chad is in love with her or her beautiful daughter Jeanne. His sense of disappointment and missed opportunity leads him to confide in Chad’s friend Bilham, telling him to “Live!” Strether is convinced that Chad should not return home to the family business, because he is so impressed with his improvement and sophistication. Mrs. Newsome therefore sends over new Ambassadors (the Pococks)–most importantly, Sarah Pocock, Chad’s sister–who disagrees with Strether’s assessment and denounces Marie de Vionnet as a woman of ill repute. Strether escapes to the French countryside and runs into Chad and Marie on a boat. He returns to Paris, rejects an implied proposal of marriage from Miss Gostrey, and then goes back to the United States.

from the PREFACE:

– Contrast James’ third-person point of view with David Copperfield
– The Novel attempts to treat the manner as if it were an essential matter. Talk about this in terms of Tilling’s essay, but also in terms of taste (manner) and nourishment (matter). How does Jame offer a paradigm of tasting that overturns the traditional denigration of ‘taste’ as mere dilettantism?
– How does this treatment of manner lead to the “Grace of Intensity” that is the special achievement of the elastic novel form (allows for extended scenes of “over-preparation” for the actual “scenes” of passing action)…and how can this be talked about in terms of an ethics?

 

KEY MOMENTS:

Strether’s profession of identity: “[Putting on my name] is exactly the thing that I’m reduced to doing for myself. It seems to rescue a little, you see, from the wreck of hopes and ambitions, the refuse-heap of disappointments and failures my one presentable little scrap of identity” (51). This is a set up for Strether’s impending susceptibility to the “success” of Chad. The advantage, for James, of choosing a mature hero, is that he can tell the story of maturation through te eyes of a character that poignantly feels the pain of not expanding one’s horizons.

Strether’s speech to Bilham is perhaps the most importnat moment in the novel, according to James himself: “Do what you like so long as you don’t make my mistake. For it was a mistake. Live!” (132). In the context of a novel that deals so little with actions or events associated with the action of life, one can take this passage as a justification of James’ artistic practice–an art that makes or constructs life out of the myriad shadings of manner that are supposedly secondary, but in fact primary to that which we call “Life.” Or perhaps read as a moment of self-conscious critique…I’ve not lived so that you might live… At any rate, this concept of life is radically delimited (“a tin mould…into which, a helpless jelly, one’s consciousness is poured”) unless one recognize that it is limited…and this precisely where living and freedom begin…

The novel, from Book Five onwards, is an account of how Strether’s lost youth becomes sensual, accessible to touch, an “affair of the senses” (284) that approximates a momentary freedom of the moment (283).

The tableau vivant of the approaching row boat containing Marie and Chad. Not only “a chance in a million,” and therefore a good time to talk about novelistic artifice, but also a good chance to talk abotu the relationship between artistic representation and reality–that is, mimesis. Chad and Marie appear as if they were in a painting…as if the painting demanded their presence. Only slowly does the perfect painting break down, as Strether realizes that familiar lurking in the defamiliarized scene.

The family business that goes unnamed: Chad refers to returning to “the sale of the object advertised” (341). (Cf. Bill Brown, “Advertising Late James”)

 

 

 

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