The Ambassadors
by Henry James

Review by Edward Tanguay
August 23, 1996

I've never experienced a more tedious book to read than The Ambassadors by Henry James. Even the difficult Sound and the Fury by Faulkner and To the Lighthouse by Woolf provide the reader with a text that at least emulates the flow of consciousness. But James in The Ambassadors does not bring his text down to the level of the flow of consciousness but instead elevates it to the cryptic height at which he analyses thoughts and motions and intutions of people like an archeologist would analyze a minute fossil. For two people to walk in a room and say hello to each other and sit down takes James eighteen pages to describe, as he will be sure to tell you the psychological foundation for every thought that goes through each character's mind. An example of this:

Before reaching her he stopped on the grass and went through the form of feeling for something, possibly forgotten, in the light overcoat he carried on his arm; yet the essence of the act was no more than the impulse to gain time. Nothing could have been odder than Strether's sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then. It had begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharper survey of the elements of Appearance than he had for a long time been moved to make.

It's as if Henry was trying to copy his philosopher brother William. He's riding high on a psychological, philosophical, or symbolic level that is not easy to tune into as he never touches the surface and tells you what is going on. Knowing that there was something behind his knotty syntax and overlong sentences that I was missing, I got a piece of secondary literature on The Ambassadors by Frederick Crews as a set of keys to unlock what was going on behind James' hard outer shell of words. And here is what I found:

First of all, as in _The American_, you have an American coming to Europe and the story of a New World fly getting caught in the Old World web, then struggling with his identity as the reader learns all sorts of things about both cultures and the people therein. Strether is the fly this time, and the web is a changed Chad and his lover Jeanne de Vionnet and the deceptive city of Paris. What is interesting about The Ambassadors is the degree of change that each of the characters effect, some not at all and others significantly. On the left side of the continuum of least changed to most changed sits Mrs. Newsome, who although never appearing in the story, has a immense moral presence throughout the book: she's the moral anchor back in Woollett apart from whom Strether begins to move. Maria Gostrey is the non-changing American abroad tempting Strether with a "New World in the Old World" which he eventually also declines. Strether comes from the "puritan prison" of Woollett and as a missionary to save the American soul of Chad. What makes this book so culturally educational is the tracking of the gradual temptation, then the slow breakdown of his Strether's Puritan soul into something less restricted. Strether jumps to his New England conclusions about Chad's behavior but then realizes that this new behavior is actually not that bad ("he has become a pagan, but the kind of pagan that Woollett could do well to tolerate"). In a side note here, I have to think of my first day in Europe back in 1989, on a 1-year church organized program, sitting in the wing of a church building in Meerssen, Netherlands, listening to a preacher give a talk, then lead a prayer, then lift up his head and say "O.K. Let's all meet in the basement bar for drinks in ten minutes--we take U.S. dollars, Canadian dollars, and Holland Guilders" and he got up and left. We from North America remained stunned in our seats with the question in our heads "Drinking alcohol in a church building? Isn't that a sin?"

It's this kind of shock that Strether receives and then has to deal with. If Chad and his lover Jeanne (who are trying to get her into a convenient marriage with someone else so that they can continue their affair [!]) were transplanted to Woollett, Massachusetts, they would be seen as a whoremonger and a whore or witch or whatever and shipped out of town. Yet in Paris, for reasons unexplained, this behavior fits with the obscure talk and ambiguous meanings that Strether and the reader never really understand. Paris lifestyle has style and taste, while Woollett lifestyle has principles. Strether eventually throws off these shackles only to never really fit into Paris because he never really understood it: so Strether is left with a choice of two worlds: Woollett the moral penal colony, or Paris the mysterious fairyland. He ends up going back to the former, but does not reaccept these values. He ends up as a man without a home, somewhere in between the two cultures.

From this point of few is The Ambassors an enlightening book for the study of cultural relativity. Is drinking in a church a sin in Virginia? Is it a sin in Holland? Is it a sin everywhere? With this comes the question of the identity of an expatriate or of a cross- culture or cross-religion marriage partner. How much of the culture can one adopt and still retain his original identity? What is identity?

One reason why this story is not easy to follow is that it does not ask "what is woing to happen next?" but instead "what is the meaning of that which has already happened?" The reader is always in the dark as to what the general story line is, and is inundated with analysis of what Jeanne said and what it means, and what Chad said and what that means, and how Strethers actions are going to affect others.

Also, excessive manners of each of the characters mask how they really feel. Chad comes across as a cheerful, polite young man, and Strether is cheeful and polite, so that you have to read deeply and be attentive for cues as to what people do really mean.

So, this is by far not my favorite book in the world, but the themes are interesting and meaningful, and there is more than meets the eye. I would like to know what happened to James between the time he wrote the legible book The Americans and when he wrote this cryptic novel The Ambassadors. "Daisy Miller" is also extremely lucid and well written. It shows me though that James has more than one style and has control of his method of writing. This, combined with his constant Europe/American theme and insightful characters, makes me want to read more of his books, perhaps Portrait of a Lady, perhaps The Turn of the Screw, perhaps The Bostonians next. But for now, it's a relief to put the demanding James back on the shelf for awhile!

Edward Tanguay

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