Thursday, December 3, 2009

290. The Ambassadors - Henry James

History: This book was published in 1903.
Plot: Lambert Strether, a middle-aged, yet not broadly-experienced, man from Wollett, Massachusetts, agrees to assume a mission for his wealthy fiancée: go to Paris and rescue her son, Chad Newsome, from the clutches of a presumably wicked woman. On his journey, Strether stops in England, and there meets Maria Gostrey, an American woman who has lived in Paris for years. Her cynical wit and worldly opinions start to rattle Strether's preconceived view of the situation.
In Paris, Strether meets Chad, and is impressed by the much greater sophistication he seems to have gained during his years in Europe. Chad takes him to a garden party, where Strether meets Marie de Vionnet, a lovely woman of impeccable manners, separated from her reportedly unpleasant husband, and Jeanne, her exquisite daughter. Strether is confused as to whether Chad is more attracted to the mother or the daughter. At the same time, Strether, himself, feels an overwhelming attraction to Marie de Vionnet, which he suspects she might requite, and so begins questioning his commitment to return to Wollett and marry Chad's mother, despite his admiration for her.
All of these impressions of Parisian culture lead Strether to confide in Little Bilham, a friend of Chad's, that he might have missed the best life has to offer; he starts to delight in the loveliness of Paris, and stops Chad from returning to America. Moreover, Strether's American traveling companion, Waymarsh provides thematic counterpoint, by refusing to be seduced by the charms of Europe. Meanwhile, Mrs. Newsome, Strether's fiancée and Chad's mother, impatiently waiting in America, enlists new "ambassadors" to forthwith return with Chad. The most important of the new ambassadors, Sarah Pocock, Chad's sister, harshly dismisses Strether's impression that Chad has improved, condemns Marie as an indecent woman, and demands that Chad immediately return to the family business in America.
To escape his troubles, Strether takes a brief tour of the French countryside, and accidentally encounters Chad and Marie at a rural inn; he then comprehends the full extent of their romance. After returning to Paris, he counsels Chad not to leave Marie; but Strether finds he is now uncomfortable in Europe. In the event, he declines Maria Gostrey's virtual marriage proposal and returns to America.
Review: "The Ambassadors" begins in England and takes place mostly in Paris, and even though most of its characters are American, it is only referentially concerned with its author's native country. At the same time, the novel is not about Americans frivolously sowing their wild oats in exotic ancestral lands, but rather how they use their new settings to break away from restrictive American traditions and conventions and redefine their values and standards of living. The typical setting of a James novel, and the collision of American innocence with European experience. I find Henry James writing much like Jane Austen, too much, begrudging the frustratingly and intentionally thick prose. James does indeed describe intense human situations in great depth and detail: duty, honor, nostalgia.
Opening Line: "Strether's first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarah was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted."
Closing Line: "Then there we are," said Strether."
Quotes: "...don't forget that you're young-blessedly young; be glad of it on the contrary and live up to it. Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had? ... This place and these impressions-mild as you may find them to wind a man up so; all my impressions of
Chad and of people I've seen at his place-well have had their abundant message for me, have just dropped that into my mind. I see it now. I haven't done so before-and now I'm old; too old at any rate for what I see."
Rating: Bad.

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