It is important to remember that Henry James's later works (his "major phase") are very much the roots of "modern literature" (whatever that means), and should be read in the same way as Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu
, Joyce's Ulysses
, Woolf's The Waves
and Mrs. Dalloway
: which is to say: slowly savored. James himself was cognizant of this and admonished his readers to read only five pages a day (a challenge which I found impossible, but rather read in small-ish bits over each day). In Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text
he advises (in reading "modern" texts as opposed to classical ones):
"Read slowly, read all of a novel of Zola, and the book will drop from your hands; read fast, in snatches, some modern text, and it becomes opaque, inaccessible to your pleasure: you want something to happen and nothing does... the interstice of bliss, occurs in the volume of languages, in the uttering, no tin the sequence of utterances: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover--"
This is sound advise, suited perfectly to find pleasure in James's The Ambassadors
- the master's, and my own, favorite of his works. There is a painstaking and almost painful subtlety to James's "major phase" (which is canonized in the present work, The Wings of the Dove
and The Golden Bowl
), a subtlety which was growing in power in his Portrait of a Lady
but is in full force in Ambassadors
. The sentences alone, little labyrinths, make the work difficult to read quickly, and foils any attempts to do so pleasurably.
The "Ambassador" is Lewis Lambert Strether, an American man from Woollett, a conventional but fictional Massachusetts town, where he is engaged to be married to the cold and absent figure, Mrs. Newsome. He is sent by Mrs. Newsome to Paris to retrieve her son, Chad, and recruit him to take charge of the family's mysterious manufacturing concern (the product is never mentioned outright, though it is alluded to as something insignificant but over which the Newsome's hold a monopoly). When Strether arrives in Paris he sees that Chad is happily engaged in a romantic relationship with an older woman, Mme. Vionnet.
The character of Strether is really the height of James's art. (An art which usually centers on the innocence/corruption of the female psyche, most famously Isabel Archer, Milly Theale, Kate Croy, Daisy Miller, Turn of the Screw
's governess, etc.). In this work, James presents us, rather than a central heroine, a central man who is affected on all sides by a covey of women (this approach is foreshadowed in James's treatment of Merton Densher in Wings of the Dove
) The three powerful women which both charm and control him are: Maria Gostrey, Marie de Vionnet, and Mrs. Newsome; Strether's nuanced relationships with these women constitute the web and drama of James's masterpiece.
Maria and Marie, two names very similar (derived from the Virgin Mary), play diametrically opposite roles for Strether, though he is enchanted by both women. To call Marie (Mme. de Vionnet) the story's "villain" is to misread the novel, and would be much too explicit for a work by James (she is the more nuanced, more subtle Mme. Merle, a la ). The "tension" of the novel, is the tension between those who "know" and those who do not "know" (namely Strether). Mme. de Vionnet is in the knowing camp, she deceives Strether and keeps him in the dark about the unvirtuous nature of her relationship with the young Chad. She is certainly in love with Chad, or with her situation, and is passionately at odds with his returning to America. But to paint her as a villain is too black a lacquer for her; she opposes Strether, but she does so with something like love for Chad.
Maria is Strether's confidant, and Strether's growing affection for her makes his ultimate return to Mrs. Newsome that much more poignant to the reader. She represents the life that Strether could still have, as opposed to the one which he has now with Mrs. Newsome, and even opposed to that which he had with his son and wife before the died. She represents a freer life, one which has elements of European freedom of spirit, and also American values (honesty, etc.). When reading The Ambassadors I can't help but sympathize accutely with Ms. Gostrey. She is the book's closest thing to a Jamesian heroine, and Strether represents as much a salvation to her as she does to him.
The cold and absent shadow of Mrs. Newsome is cast far over ever nook and crevice of the book. Though she is 3,000 miles away in Woollett, her presence is felt in every motion and futile rebellion of Strether abroad. While Mme. de Vionnet deceives Strether, it is Mrs. Newsome who controls him. She is haunting figure, and one cannot help but see her as Strether's gaoler, imprisoning what is naturally a vibrant optimism and fullness of life, to the state of servant. The whole of his life is given a thin veneer of meaning by his association with Mrs. Newsome, but to that point, his life has no meaning for himself:
His name on the green cover, where he had put it for Mrs. Newsome, expressed him doubtless just enough to make the world— the world as distinguished, both for more and for less, from Woollett—ask who he was. He had incurred the ridicule of having to have his explanation explained. He was Lambert Strether because he was on the cover, whereas it should have been, for anything like glory, that he was on the cover because he was Lambert Strether.
He values himself insofar as he is known for editting a small publication in Woollett - a post which he has not earned through merit, but by his amorous association with Mrs. Newsome. Furthermore, his errand for Mrs. Newsome to Europe has the salty taste of a business transaction, even moreso when she sends her daughter to check on his progress and efforts. Their relationship is so coldly economic, it is almost horrifying to imagine a man as potent and vibrant as Strether (as seen in his speech to Little Bilham) married to such a domineering woman, who treats Strether like an account to be settled rather than a fiance. Though the story is relayed exclusively from Strethers point of view, Mrs. Newsome is never referred to by her first name. The petit mort of Portrait of a Lady, wherein Isabel returns to Osmond, is often rallied against, but the Strether's return to Mrs. Newsome, to me, seems as horrible. We may hate Osmond and Mme. Merle for betraying Isabel's innocence, but she remains a strong figure; we must hate with equal, or increased, vigor Mrs. Newsome, who stifles the chance of happiness for Strether, which he is so expressly aware of, which he knows full well are within his grasp, which he urges upon Little Bilham, upon Chad.