|"THE AMBASSADORS demands more effort and concentration from the reader than probably any other novel written by an American. But the payoff is worth the effort, however we may begrudge James' frustratingly and intentionally thick prose. James does indeed describe intense human situations in great depth and detail: duty, honor, nostalgia; the contrast between the starchy-collared stiffness of Brahmin Boston (read: America) contrasted with the joie de vivre of Paris (read: Europe); how difficult certain of life's choices can be. These are just a few themes that make this book worthwhile. James' America is young and trying to assert itself (and so takes itself too seriously); his Europe is old and satisfied (and perhaps doesn't take itself seriously enough).
Lambert Strether, a fiftysomething turn-of-the-20th-century bourgeois Bostonian gentleman on an aristocratic lady's errand--she will not marry him until he convinces her son Chad to return to Massachusetts. We see his struggle with his uncomfortable position when he realizes Chad is no longer a spoiled young prep-schooler, but a young gentleman of increasing refinement and self-awareness. And if Strether is anything, by the way, he is one of the most supremely self-aware characters in literary history. Once that Paris air starts to play its magic with Strether himself, we are off to the races. Keeping in mind, of course, that with James' prose we are racing with tortoises. James invites us to ponder how many chances a person truly gets in this life to reinvent his or her self? And if we get the chance, do we always take it? How much should we weigh the consequences before we decide? How much are we willing to accept them after we have chosen?
For similar themes with clearer, faster-paced, and wittier prose, try Edith Wharton's marvelous homage to James, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. "
"This is a novel about a man named Strether, who is as obviously an alter ego of Henry James as Ralph Touchett is of Mr. James in Portrait of A Lady or, to jump continents and switch authors, the main character in Remembrance of Things Past is of Proust. Strether is in Paris to retrieve his (hopefully?) future son-in-law Chad from the wiles of the City of Light and return him to New England so that Strether can marry, settle down and pass his waning years in Puritan New England (New England was still Puritan at the time.). At least, that's the plan. But once Strether arrives, something happens to him, and that mysterious something is what makes this work great. One could easily sum it up and say that Strether becomes enraptured by beauty, and one would be quite right. But to do so would be to miss the point....What is beauty? This is the question the novel essentially asks, all plotting and sub-plotting (and plenty of it) aside. Strether's paralysis because of his inability to grasp what is holding him there and why he becomes one of the greatest procrastinators in English literature (not excepting a certain Danish prince) is the great theme around which all else revolves. Strether is essentially a sensitive, cultured man with hyper-refined sensibilities. Alighting in Paris from the drab New England factory town awakens things in him that can only be perceived through the mind's eye of such a man. He is a sort of Geiger counter which registers things missed by others not so equipped (i.e., the rest of the characters.) "Strether had not for years so rich a consciousness of time-a bag of gold into which he constantly dipped for a handful." Ch.6 The beginning of Ch. 16 has a beautifully succinct line of his predicament, "How could he wish it to be lucid for others, for any one, that he, for the hour, saw reasons enough in the mere way the bright, clean, ordered water-side life came in at the open window?" Reasons, that is, to stay in beloved Paris. The denouement of the struggle between this sensibility and his deeply engrained New England morality becomes really beside the point. All the tergiversations and multiple reflections and subtle dialogue that convey the consciousness of a great soul constitute the book's undisputed prominence. I came away from the novel asking myself anew the question raised by Plato and other great philosophers and artists throughout history: What is beauty? What is the mysterious hold it has on us? And why do those who feel its power most acutely, such as Strether, suffer the most? "
"If one were to choose just one novel from Henry James and say that this one is the quintessential example of a work that combines theme and style, one could do worse than to choose THE AMBASSADORS. James had a fascination with yanking Americans from their new world padded cells of insulation and transporting them to Europe, an old world that simply reeked of style and long held cultural givens. Lambert Strether is the ambassador of the title, an American who has grown up with typical American values, most of which relate to the Jamesian belief (often incorrect and exaggerated) that Americans were a breed of money mad social cretins who would not recognize class if they bumped into it. At the beginning of the novel, Strether is depicted as a basically good-hearted man who exists--but does not live--at least in the sense that he later comes to understand. It is he who is sent to London to retrieve a wayward Chad Newsome, a fellow American, son of the immensely wealthy Mrs. Newsome, who is eager for her son to return to America to take his rightful place as heir to the family fortune. In Europe, Strether is the fish out of water--at first. His job is to convert Chad or at least retrieve him from what Mrs. Newsome considers the clutches of a dissipated anti-Puritan and lascivious culture. But the conversion works in reverse. Lambert is affected by the openness of the European lifestyle, which compares refreshingly favorably to an American lifestyle that he now views as ponderous and stifling. He is further affected by a growing closeness with the target of his journey, Chad, a man that his mother assured Strether needed saving, but the only saving that Chad needs is to be saved from having to return to an America that will surely destroy Chad's new-found soul just as surely as it had stifled Strether's. Strether is finally affected by his relation with Mme. Marie de Vionnet, a lovely, elegant, and older European woman who is the girlfriend of Chad. This woman is another in a long line of Jamesian old-world icons of feminine exoticism who can seemingly float in mid air, so appealing is her capacity for infinite variety. Lambert concludes that she is RIGHT for Chad. Further, Europe is RIGHT for Chad, and finally, America is WRONG for Chad as well. By extension, Lambert learns the same lessons for himself. If he remains in Europe, he will suffer considerable sacrifice, not the least of which is that he has considered marrying Chad's mother, who suggests that at the successful conclusion to Lambert's journey, she will marry him, thus assuring him a share of her wealth. When Lambert delays in his mission, Mrs. Newsome sends yet another set of ambassadors, Chad's sister and her husband, both of whom prove invulnerable to the charms of Europe. Ironically, James shows that in the disreputable actions of the two in Europe (both engage in some tawdry behavior like drunken American sailors in a seedy Parisian saloon), that true class is a state of mind and not a function of where one hangs one's hat. At the end of the novel, James does not definitively wrap up all the loose ends. Presumably, Chad will eventually return to America--or perhaps not. Lambert will probably remain in Europe--or again perhaps not. Clearly, in THE AMBASSADORS, James leaves the door deliberately and ambiguously open, so that the resolution may need some unfolding after the words "the end."
Just as Henry James sets up a collision of cultural worlds in crisis, so does he do with a parallel collision of style in crisis. Many readers complain that James' style--ornate, ponderous, excessively prone to mutlti-pages of interminable dialogue--simply will not let them read a book that to them needs more plowing than reading. The problem here is that such readers have been taught to read conventional novels of slam-bang action, Hemingway-esque dialogue, and rapid pacing. In THE AMBASSADORS, James explores a different universe. His universe is the microverse, one is which most of the action is internalized. James wishes to unveil conscience and the intricacies of human dynamics. One might almost argue that the events in THE AMBASSADORS occur in real time. If it seems to take days to read, then perhaps that is the way that events occur in the fictional construct of any Jamesian novel. To read Henry James is to reread him as well. Just as human beings pause to use their memories of significant events to consider what to do for the future, so must the reader pause to reread passages to ponder past events. Thus, Henry James is one of the few authors (Proust is another) who has melded content to style. One does not read James merely to satisfy the requirements of a college class on the novel. One rereads James after the college class is over, and it is only then that one discovers the beauty of exploring the infinitely more beautiful world of the inner landscape over the outer. "