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The Ambassadors

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The Ambassadors is a novel by Henry James, originally published as a serial in the North American Review (NAR).

Concerned that her son Chad may have become involved with a woman of dubious reputation, the formidable Mrs. Newsome sends her 'ambassador' Strether from Massachusetts to Paris to extricate him. Strether's mission, however, is gradually undermined as he falls under the spell of the city and finds Chad refined rather than corrupted by its influence and that of his charming companion, the comtesse de Vionnet. As the summer wears on, Mrs. Newsome comes to the conclusion that she must send another envoy to Paris to confront the errant Chad, and a Strether whose view of the world has changed profoundly.
The third-person narrative is told exclusively from Strether's point of view.

After the opera, Strether tells Chad why he has come to Paris. However, as he speaks, Strether finds himself less certain of his stance. Chad, once callow and juvenile, now seems confident and restrained. His new personality impresses Strether, who wonders what—or who—has caused Chad’s transformation. Chad asks Strether to stay and meet his close friends, a mother and a daughter, who are arriving in a few days time. Strether, wondering if one of these women has been the impetus for Chad’s improvement, and assuming the daughter to be Chad’s lover, agrees to stay. Meanwhile, Bilham convinces Strether that Chad has a “virtuous attachment”—and that Chad’s relationship with the mysterious woman is innocent. Strether eventually meets the women, Madame de Vionnet and her daughter, Jeanne, at a high society party, but he does not see them long enough to cement an impression. After the brief introduction to Madame de Vionnet, Strether finds himself alone with little Bilham. Strether takes the opportunity to offer Bilham some sage advice: live all you can before it is too late. This advice exposes Strether’s own change since coming to Europe. In Paris, he feels renewed, young again, doubly alive. Over...

528 pages, Paperback

First published September 24, 1903

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About the author

Henry James

4,165 books3,364 followers
Henry James, OM (1843-1916), son of theologian Henry James Sr., brother of the philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James, was an American-born author, one of the founders and leaders of a school of realism in fiction. He spent much of his life in England and became a British subject shortly before his death. He is primarily known for a series of major novels in which he portrayed the encounter of America with Europe. His plots centered on personal relationships, the proper exercise of power in such relationships, and other moral questions. His method of writing from the point of view of a character within a tale allowed him to explore the phenomena of consciousness and perception, and his style in later works has been compared to impressionist painting.

James insisted that writers in Great Britain and America should be allowed the greatest freedom possible in presenting their view of the world, as French authors were. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators in his own novels and tales brought a new depth and interest to realistic fiction, and foreshadowed the modernist work of the twentieth century. An extraordinarily productive writer, in addition to his voluminous works of fiction he published articles and books of travel writing, biography, autobiography, and criticism,and wrote plays, some of which were performed during his lifetime with moderate success. His theatrical work is thought to have profoundly influenced his later novels and tales.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 742 reviews
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,229 followers
September 13, 2017
A gay friend of mine once put Henry James’ tendency to play hide and seek with the reader down to the same trait within himself with regards to his sexuality. Apparently he was deeply suspicious of everything that gave him pleasure. “Nothing came to him simply.” And in this novel nothing comes to us simply either.

I think it took me longer to read this than War and Peace. And that’s because virtually every sentence is like trying to figure out a rubic cube. There’s a moment when a character feels he is moving “in a maze of mystic closed allusions”. I couldn’t help wondering if Henry, not a renowned comedian, was having a laugh at the reader’s expense because that’s exactly what I felt as a reader during this novel. There were times when I was reminded of Nabokov and especially Ada, another novel that only inches open its door by degrees when we knock. So there’s something very modern about The Ambassadors. There’s a character who says, “Oh I don’t think anything now. That is but what I do think!” And this kind of mystification, these modifying clauses and sub clauses are a constant trait of this novel. Every sentence is a maze it takes two readings to get out of. It’d be easy to certify this novel as insane, an over-elaborate joke whose wit is lost on virtually everyone except the author, but once I managed to enter into its spirit of wilful obfuscation I began admiring it more and more. Communication, after all, is one of the major stumbling blocks in our lives. Every sentence delivered up to us contains numerous points of departure. To understand what’s communicated to us we simplify it and, as a result, often misrepresent it. Rarely is communication straightforward. We realise this most keenly when we are in love and find ourselves studying the words of the beloved with a metaphysical microscope. In a sense every character in this novel has the keyed up sensibility of the lover, both wilfully deflecting and hungrily truth seeking. The role of ambassador, like lover, is to mask the truth as often as to disclose it.

That said it baffled me when I read afterwards what Henry James thought was the defining passage of this book – “Live all you can: it's a mistake not to. It doesn't matter what you do in particular, so long as you have had your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had?” Is this novel an exhortation to live life to the full? I don’t understand how any character who circles around an answer to a simple question for four paragraphs could be seen as living life to full. In the time it takes the characters to arrive at any defining disclosure in this novel one could have caught the Eurostar to Paris and enjoyed lunch on the terrace of a brasserie. At times it was like a literary version of Big Brother – watching people who have nothing else to do but plot and unmask amorous or tactical alliances. Answers to questions in this novel always give rise to more questions. No one in fact seems capable of ever delivering up a clear answer to any question. There’s one instance where a character answers a question by saying, “Yes”, and then adding as an afterthought, “absolutely not”. Whatever anyone says is inevitably qualified, sometimes contradicted. At the end of every page you can feel you’re back at the beginning. Strether on whom all this elaborate subterfuge is enacted does gain our sympathy because in essence his plight is that of all of us – the struggle to make sense of the bigger picture with broken shards of incomplete information, like the archaeologist down in the trenches of a dig.

Interestingly James creates a world in which men are depicted as pawns for the queenly powers of women until the final stages of the game. There’s also a fantastic female villain who never once appears in the novel. As usual the poor, the downtrodden have no existence whatsoever in Henry James novels. An alien reading HJ might think all earthlings have unlimited leisure. And there’s a fabulous scene where Strether walks into the living reality of a painting he couldn’t afford to buy when he admired it in a Boston art gallery. This was one of the cleverest ways I’ve ever come across of showing how a character has made strides during the course of a narrative.

There’s no way on earth I’d recommend The Ambassadors and yet ultimately I found it an enriching experience, especially in what it has to say about the nature of communication. I also ultimately loved the war it wages on commercial fiction’s tendency to encourage skim reading onto the next twist in the plot. Just try skim reading this! And of course James, again like Nabokov, can write a dazzling sentence…
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
792 reviews
May 6, 2020
Reading The Ambassadors is like progressing through a circular maze. The reader roams around the edges at first, coming up frequently against dead ends. Why is Chad Newsome so difficult to figure out? What are the author’s intentions for Maria Gostrey? Will Mrs Newsome, or even her more formidable-sounding daughter, Mrs Pocock, ever make a physical appearance in the story? The enigmas in this early stage are such that if the reader found herself accidentally back at the start she might be tempted to abandon the maze altogether. But it would be a difficult choice to make because in all her frustrated revolvings she has nevertheless passed through some exquisite passages. She continues, and little by little she finds herself circling a smaller space, and she tells herself that perhaps she is finally getting closer to the heart of the story. Yet even when a new direction seems full of promise, she still comes up against the same blind alleys as before and she despairs of ever getting to the centre.

At this stage she stops worrying about finishing. She's enjoying the convoluted paths, taking her time and appreciating every twist and turn. She is blissful in the face of the beauty of certain passages and asks for nothing more than to spend the rest of her life deciphering Jamesian sentences.

Her bliss is soon disturbed by a new preoccupation. In her circling she has picked up a companion. Lambert Strether, the main character in this third person narrative, seems to be walking in her footsteps or she in his. She may not understand all his thoughts and desires but she empathizes with him fully as he too circles the central facts of the story, enjoying the beauty along the way but encountering the same dead ends as herself. And while she enjoys Strether's company very much, her discomfort arises from a fear that he may come to grief before the end, and she herself alongside him.

There are many pitfalls in Strether's path: he is being used by almost every other character in the narrative while nevertheless trying to serve everyone to the best of his abilities. The reader wants to warn him of the dangers, to whisper, watch out, Strether. But she has learned something from Maria Gostrey. Silent support is what Strether requires at this point, especially as he is about to face the daunting Mrs Pocock, looming forth from what seems like another blind alley.

But Mrs Pocock’s bulk fails to hide the opening leading to the centre of the maze:
the jump was but short to supreme lucidity. Light became indeed after that so intense that Strether would doubtless have but half made out, in the prodigious glare, by which of the two the issue had been in fact precipitated. It was, in their contracted quarters, as much there between them as if it had been something suddenly spilled with a crash and a splash on the floor.

The reader can only be in awe of the writer’s skill in delivering her, right alongside his main character, to the heart of the story—in one blinding flash. She looks back at the manner in which she read the earlier sections and realises she was an innocent then, incapable yet of understanding. Now it has all come to mean something different; she has grown and changed just as Strether has changed: He had heard, of old, only what he could then hear; what he could do now was to think of three months ago as a point in the far past

If Lambert Strether and the reader finally reach the point of brutal lucidity, it is thanks to the unassuming character of Maria Gostrey. We wondered at the beginning about her role in the story. It is very simple: James needed her to keep the thread. Without her, there would be no way, happy or unhappy, for the reader to exit the maze that is The Ambassadors.
Profile Image for Henry Avila.
469 reviews3,258 followers
December 16, 2021
Lewis Lambert Strether 55, a prim widower considers himself a failure completely dependent on the kindness of wealthy widow and still attractive Mrs.Newsome, from fictional Woollett, Massachusetts his fiancee for a living (set circa 1900) he's the editor of a small magazine review that is financed by her, owner of a company that manufactures.... it is never said in the novel. Sent by Mrs. Newsome ( thus the title ,"The Ambassadors," there will be others) to get her son the immature Chad(wick) 28, living in Paris for three years, back home and do his duty run the family business but there are complications, he is involved his relatives believe in a sordid affair with a married woman, but quite a charming one beautiful Marie de Vionnet 38, separated from her brute of a husband. Mr.Strether first lands in England, to meet his best friend the laconic Waymarsh, an American lawyer who has made a great deal of money there but does not like Europe and wants to go home. He encounters too, bright, pretty Maria Gostrey 35 another American who skillfully guides tourist around the continent, she is very popular they become very close, (maybe romantically? ) and Lambert confides in her his many troubles. Arriving in the French capital our hero looks around meets all the important people he needs to, and strangely begins to change his views becoming more tolerant of different ways of living, the morality of Woollett seems not to fit here, he starts to enjoy the magic of Paris the great museums, impressive churches renowned restaurants fun cafes the food , wines, the river Seine slowing traveling through the metropolis, the many boats and people on them the unhurried style of life, freedom is intoxicating can this be wrong? The remote Mrs.Newsome is not happy, months have passed no progress reported by Strether, she has her daughter Mrs. Sarah Pocock, her husband and his sister also, go to help the unsuccessful "Ambassador", talk to the reluctant Chad, this lady's brother is made of sterner stuff than our friend the gentle Lambert. Slowly it dawns on the always too trusting gentleman that some inhabitants are lying to Mr. Lambert Strether, shocking him it makes him think has he been a simpleton...Besides our would -be hero has to go back home to America and face the music, his life will never be the same...This novel will be enjoyed by fans of Henry James, the European and American differences which the author writes about... I being both relish, but it can be difficult for others, his sentences run on some much too long and clarity is not his strength, yet the talent shows ...P.S. my guess and it's only mine, what Mrs. Newsome makes are ...clocks ?
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,647 followers
April 9, 2021
A curious reading experience, and, in the end, a remarkable one. After banging my head against the first two hundred pages of this novel over several weeks, something suddenly clicked in. Was it James's bizarre, flourishing syntax? Or the sudden realization that this is a simple plot, presented complexly? Was it to understand that, though we're in the 3rd person, we're deeply in the head of our protagonist, Strether, a character who is almost uniquely unreliable in his inability to think things TO HIMSELF - a passiveness I've not yet encountered in reading? It was all of it, of course, and I suddenly began to swoon, and marvel, to root for characters, charmed by the subtle mysteries of this work. The ending is marvelous - and I suspect, if I go back and re-read, that that blasted beginning is marvelous too.
Profile Image for Helle.
376 reviews376 followers
May 8, 2016
Henry James has taken circumlocution and obfuscation to new heights in this novel. I don’t often rate a book an ungenerous two stars, but this novel was in many ways an impossible book for me. I appreciate the architecture of James’s novel: the beauty of Paris as a backdrop for temporarily exiled Americans to meet and discover, or not, the underlying theme: ‘knowing how to live’. But I never felt the intended drama, or the sudden discovery of self, partly because I nearly drowned in James’s nebulous, impenetrable sentences which, while exuding a certain beauty, often defied understanding.

Lambert Strether goes to Paris on behalf of Mrs. Newsome, who wants her son back in the fold in New England. Strether finds Chad Newsome in Paris, and he is, they all say, an altered man. He has discovered the moveable feast that the man of simpler prose called this great venue, and Strether feels a bit lost. Until he begins to feel the pull of Paris as well, and of the women residing there. This is basically the story. Will Chad go back? Will Strether? What will Mrs. Newsome do? What about Madame de Vionnet, the older French temptress, and the exiled American, Miss Gostrey, who is clearly interested in Strether?

I value beautiful prose and don’t always believe in the simplicity of language that writers like Hemingway and King, albeit very different writers, are proponents of. However, there were convoluted sentences with embedded clauses, which had me going back to disentangle them to make any sense of the story. The writing, at times, seemed willfully obscure. Then there is the idiosyncratic placement of adverbs as well as an immense accumulation of adverbs, both in the novel as a whole and on sentence level, which I’m sorry to say simply annoyed me. To wit:

She immensely wants herself to see our friend’s cousin.

(…) that she would really perhaps after all have heard (…)

He had had, vaguely, his view of the probability of her wishing to set something right, to deal in some way with the fraud so lately practiced on his presumed credibility.

He perceived soon enough at least that, however reasonable she might be, she wasn’t vulgarly confused, and it herewith pressed upon him that their eminent ‘lie’, Chad’s and hers, was simply after all such an inevitable tribute to good taste as he couldn’t have wished them not to render.

And conversations in which people said things like:

’Is she that deep?’

‘Yes, I believe that she is.’

On which someone typically ponders thus:

He thought about it serenely.

Interestingly, the novel was Henry James’s own favourite. It is clearly the work of his mature period, and I can only say that I prefer him, then, at his more immature. This was the third time I approached the novel. I had seen the mixed ratings among my GR friends (from 2 to 5 stars) but approached the novel, seeing – as claimed on GR – that Forster had appreciated it. Well, someone has misread Forster. In his Aspects of the Novel, Forster says of this novel that James pursued the narrow path of aesthetic beauty (…) but at what sacrifice! Forster goes on to say that the characters are stingily constructed, show no carnality, have limited sensations and that James’s rigid plotting shuts the doors on life. This perhaps goes some way to explaining why I never felt the drama that the characters talk about.

Reading the novel was a stubborn struggle to me, and the only thing that comforted me in my inability to appreciate it more was that a much missed friend here on GR, whose literary judgment I completely trusted and usually agreed with, had also rated it two stars. (I checked this when I began reading the novel the first time, at which time he was still here).

So while I want to applaud James’s total and utter disbelief in more modern advice (though Hemingway was around the corner) to leave out anything superfluous and to deliberately go for the overwritten style, the story was lost to me in the fogs of oblique language rather than rendered crucial via clear and vibrant language. But it is a preference, and as Zadie Smith writes in her chapter about Forster in her essay collection: His own preference for simplicity he recognized for what it was, a preference, linked to a dream of mass connection. So I hope I do not deter anyone from reading this, but you might arm yourself with patience. Nor am I done with Henry James, but it’ll be his younger, briefer self I approach next time.
Profile Image for Fergus, Quondam Happy Face.
1,031 reviews17.7k followers
September 4, 2023
Come nearer, Odysseus,
Flower of all Greek warriors,
Bring your ship to rest, and hear our song.
Our voices are as sweet as honey in the comb,
And all things are known to us - all things that happened before Troy -
And all things that shall come to pass upon the fruitful earth.
- Homer, Odyssey, The Sirens’ Song.

And the Sirens in the Aegean, for us, echo those of the serpent to Adam and Eve: “I will make you as gods among men,” at the foot of the Tree of Good & Evil.

I have struggled to grasp the rationale that drives this book for nearly two years, and - now that I have - I see that it is a pivotal book for everyone attempting to grasp the raison d'etre of our chaotic times (that's the sole reason for my Full rating).

It is simply the ethical malaise of our own postmodern hearts: the constant barrage of the Siren’s (or serpent’s) song.

A good deal of this novel's milieu has a Parisian locale. That is no accident, as Paris was the venue of James' coming-out-of-the-closet, as is clearly evinced in the recent insightful book, Henry James in Paris, and I recommend it for your followup.

Now, I'm fully hetero, but like all of us boomers who came of age in proximity to Flower Power, have fallen victim to its conditioning - its widespread line-blurring - to evolve into a guy of tolerant confusion. And that's the new normal.

Further, there are Damoclean swords above us all to safeguard our bemusement.

For James, therefore, it is an awakening. To many of us, it however must remain a typical Jamesian aporia.

So this novel is not an unmitigated success. F.R. Leavis, as always, is right.

Or was, once. But guess what? The lines EVERYWHERE now are blurred. That's what makes Misinformation successful.

We 'moral majority' - now - are confused constantly. The devil is in the details, and we are swamped on all sides by details.

That's why this book is a Must Read for literate people.

James Taylor has recently written and performed a song about old age: and that’s the point we Boomers are advancing to now.

And Taylor's advice is good -

We've GOT to at least enjoy our aging experience as a downhill ride!

And that's all Henry James is saying to us older folks.

The wild call of the Sirens is endemic to our decaying Age -

We may not like the way it’s dimming the lights of our civilisation -

But we've GOTTA appreciate - at a distance, for a small moment - the fact that our own Ride Down is synchronized with the Transvaluation of all Values:

And that we are called to be perhaps the last guardians of the Old Ways of grace in a new world where change is the name of the game, and where "Max Flex" is the slogan of the times...

And that the tacit adaptability of our Faith can enable its survival.
Profile Image for Kinga.
479 reviews2,255 followers
April 30, 2020
This book asks a lot from the reader and offers precious little in return. Of course, those who gave it five stars must disagree and think this frustrating word salad was all worth it.

I could barely stand it. The neurotic prose, that seemed so unsure and self-conscious, constantly checking itself, in turn clarifying and contradicting, almost drove me to insanity. When James gave voice to his characters it hardly got better as everyone talked to each other in Sphinx-like riddles.

Friends, I did want to like this book. The premise was excellent - puritanical New England meets flamboyant Paris. I promise you I’m not that lazy of a reader, but by the end of this novel I started doubting whether I could speak English or if I was even literate. An occasional insightful observation was sure to get lost in all that verbiage and when something did eventually occur I almost missed it altogether as I was having an out of body experience where my soul had vacated my earthly shell to go read something more riveting, like the phonebook of the Cieszyn county from 1985. This could've been a great novel - if only someone else had written it.

And after struggling through seven million convoluted sentences that never had the decency to end when a well-behaved sentence should end, I was rewarded with a revelation that it is, in fact, in people’s nature to have sex.

For a novel about an older man who realises he has never lived, may I direct you towards the Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Please recommend novels about prim and proper Americans in Europe, but novels that are actually good.
Profile Image for David.
163 reviews529 followers
July 18, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Axl Oswaldo.
332 reviews167 followers
October 5, 2022
" 'Mr. Lewis Lambert Strether’ ”—she sounded it almost as freely as for any stranger. She repeated however that she liked it—“particularly the Lewis Lambert. It’s the name of a novel of Balzac’s.”
“Oh I know that!” said Strether.
“But the novel’s an awfully bad one.”
“I know that too,” Strether smiled.


Some spoilers below: For some reason I felt the need to talk about the ending of the book, so I'm literally telling you how this novel ends in order for me to express my thoughts afterwards. Feel free to read that part of my review—the penultimate paragraph—regardless, and thank you for understanding.

I'm quite sure we don't find books that change our life every single day—probably that would be insane—but when it happens, you already know that that book will be with you forever, that you won't be the same person you were before reading it. It is a big change, it is a whole thing for you to think of, as if you were about to start like a new chapter in your life. Well, I guess The Ambassadors is that book for me.

I remember when I started my Jamesian journey back in 2020, and now here we are, having finished the final 'trilogy' by one of my all-time favorite writers: The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and of course, The Ambassadors. Trilogy perhaps is not the right way to call them, since every book has its own independent storyline and therefore that story has nothing to do with the other two, but when it comes to James and his last works, I think it is rather useful to identify those that are very similar in terms of the prose and the topics, just like these three books are in particular, and to remember that a slow reading should be the best way for you to really enjoy them.
The Ambassadors is not an easy read, even I would say it was the most confusing, ambiguous, complex and not-to-the-point novel by James I have read so far—along with The Golden Bowl—yet it was so profound and beautifully written that I almost felt as if the author were having a real conversation with me while I read it. Since I'm used to reading his novels and his style of writing, it was not as challenging as some of my previous reading experiences such as The Golden Bowl or The Beast in the Jungle, however, I would never recommend this novel to anyone, not even to someone who enjoyed reading his previous works.

This novel introduces one of the most interesting Jamesian characters I have found thus far: Lambert Strether, a widower who is arriving in Europe from the States, has the purpose to rescue his son in-law Chad who is living a new, probably crazy life in Paris, and bring him back home, since Mrs. Newsome, Strether’s future wife, has asked him to do so. That's the storyline, by the way, a few lines and I have said what this book is entirely about. Perhaps, at the end of the day, this novel is not impressive because of the plot, but because of the way it is written; I know, ambiguity is always a main characteristic of any James' books, and The Ambassadors is not an exception. The more you read the book, the more you want to put it aside, which is a normal scenario (it might happen to everyone, in my view), but, on the other hand, if you are really into it, if the book is telling you something quite meaningful, remarkable, let's say, showing you a new perspective of life—just as my experience was—in the end you'll be able to love it, that's for sure.

Strether's life before meeting Chad in Paris used to be simple, perhaps a little monotonous, and at one moment way back when he was younger, really sad and heartbreaking, but after that meeting, he started to feel young again, somehow he managed to be free, so to speak. 'Free? Free from what?' You might ask; well, basically now he is free from himself, free from anything which hindered his own life to success. As we know, it is a whole process to realize where you are in life at one precise moment, if you are heading in the right direction or perhaps losing your way—which is, in my experience, a good thing sometimes—and what you want to do about it. Therefore, Strether's story taught me two very important things: firstly, it's never too late to start living and enjoying your own life, maybe a new life, and secondly, that I don't want to wait one more minute to keep living mine. I am 26—almost 27 in a few days, holy cow!—and Strether is twice my age, but I know nevertheless I have lived many things that have shaped the person who I am right now, and I also know people are always learning new stuff, that people are always living new experiences that make them question 'who am I?,' 'who do I want to become?,' 'where will I be, let's say, in 10, 20, 30 years?,' and so on and so forth, but here is the thing, if I dreaded something while reading this book was the fact that I don't want to turn Strether's age and to say 'I don't even know who I am'. Better late than never, so people say, but what if you start working on it now, not tomorrow, but today?
Perhaps the way Strether's story somehow changed me as a person, at this stage of my life, is unexpected and even inexplicable to me, yet quite remarkable, and eventually I prefer to figure it out on my own – I do remember there were many thoughts in my head while I was reading the novel, which, as I said, is not something that happened to me before, or at least not in the same way, not at the same level either. Never—perhaps I'm too dramatic saying this in this way—never before had a book made me feel what The Ambassadors made me feel when I read it, and yet I can't even explain how such a thing had an impact on me, this connection, this feeling... sorry but I can't (and if I could, I would rather keep it a secret than share it with everyone).

The ending of the novel was really vague and something that only Henry James could have written: Strether coming back home and not staying in Paris – why is he coming back?! What does it mean? When I read that part I got confused and I started overthinking the whole scene, perhaps trying to make out what the author wanted to say here. After a few days, I went back, I read the last two chapters again, and perhaps this time I got a conclusion (needless to say it is my conclusion but probably not the most accurate): Strether is coming back Massachusetts, not because he didn't learn anything during his visit to Chad in Paris, but because he wanted to live his new life in the place where he grew up, the place where everything began, so to speak, although this time as a new man and with a different attitude; that person is not the same Strether who arrived in London in the first chapter, but a completely different Strether, a much better version of himself, in my opinion (if this is not a coming-of-age novel, then I don't know what is).

Finally, I'd like to finish my 'review' by saying The Ambassadors is a novel which you have to read not only once in your life, but as many times as possible—as long as you enjoyed your first reading experience—and that's what I'm planning to do in the distant future – I can almost tell that picking it up again will have to be hugely rewarding. Here, for instance, I'm sharing only one of my favorite quotes with you, and probably the most important lines for me when reading the novel a couple of weeks ago:
Of course I’m youth—youth for the trip to Europe. I began to be young, or at least to get the benefit of it, the moment I met you at Chester, and that’s what has been taking place ever since. I never had the benefit at the proper time—which comes to saying that I never had the thing itself. I’m having the benefit at this moment; I had it the other day when I said to Chad ‘Wait’; I shall have it still again when Sarah Pocock arrives. It’s a benefit that would make a poor show for many people; and I don’t know who else but you and I, frankly, could begin to see in it what I feel. I don’t get drunk; I don’t pursue the ladies; I don’t spend money; I don’t even write sonnets. But nevertheless I’m making up late for what I didn’t have early. I cultivate my little benefit in my own little way. It amuses me more than anything that has happened to me in all my life. They may say what they like—it’s my surrender, it’s my tribute, to youth. One puts that in where one can—it has to come in somewhere, if only out of the lives, the conditions, the feelings of other persons. Chad gives me the sense of it, for all his grey hairs, which merely make it solid in him and safe and serene; and she does the same, for all her being older than he, for all her marriageable daughter, her separated husband, her agitated history. Though they’re young enough, my pair, I don’t say they’re, in the freshest way, their own absolutely prime adolescence; for that has nothing to do with it. The point is that they’re mine. Yes, they’re my youth; since somehow at the right time nothing else ever was. What I meant just now therefore is that it would all go—go before doing its work—if they were to fail me.”
Profile Image for David.
865 reviews1,344 followers
June 29, 2009
“The Ambassadors”, by Henry James

This is Daisy Fuentes Miller, reporting to you live from the set of MTV’s “Real World Gay Paree”. Six strangers, from totally different backgrounds, thrown together, forced to live under the merciless glare of the Hankcam, which documents their every move for posterity. Let’s see what happens when the gloves come off, and things get real.

Strether: Hi. I’m Strether. I’m engaged to Chad’s mom. She’s pissed at him, and sent me over to bring him back to Connecticut to run the family business. Paree sure seems like an awesome party town.
Chad: This is the Chadster. I don’t wanna go back to Connecticut. I’m dating this totally hot older lady. Who’s a countess. She’s been giving me some private life coaching lessons. If you know what I mean.
Countess: ‘allo. Zis is Marie. you can call me Countess Cougar. Sacre bleu, but you American boys are fine!
Strether: Damn, that countess is one hot MILF. Chad – no rush about going home. We should just hang out here in Paris and par-tay!

6 weeks later:

Sarah: This is Sarah, Chad’s older sister. What the f*** is going on here? Strether, you’ve been over six weeks already. Mother sent me over. She wants you both to haul ass back to Connecticut, pronto. (You can ignore my fat philistine slob of a husband, Jim. He’s only here to provide a cheap diversion as a lazy stereotype and adds nothing to the plot)
Chad: Chill, sis. This is my girlfriend Marie. Ain’t she smokin? Did I mention she’s a countess?
Sarah: Filthy French slut! Chad, Mother expects you to do your duty.
Strether: Dude, don’t go! It’s a trap.
Sarah: You be quiet! And you can forget about marrying Mother. Which means you’ll die lonely and poor.
Strether: Bite me. Your mother always was one uptight bitch, anyway. I’ll just stay on here. Maybe catch a little menage-a-trois action with Chad and the Countess.
Chad : Not gonna happen, dude! Sis, tell Mom to take the job and shove it. I’m having too much fun tapping aristocratic ass here in Paree. Screw Connecticut.

2 weeks later, Strether, alone in the confessional room:
So Sarah and Jim are on the way back home, with no hanging Chad. My life is totally screwed up. But at least I can be happy about getting Chad to do the right thing, to avoid the money trap, and to choose life!

2 weeks later, Chad, alone in the confessional room, very drunk:
You know, I’ve always thought that advertising was where the future is at..... And, there's no two ways about it, Marie's boobs have definitely been showing some major saggage .... Operator! Get me the number for the Cunard line, please.

Fade, to the sound of Strether whimpering pathetically, off-camera.
(Marie, of course, goes on to star in the breakout Bravo series, “Real Housewives of the 4th arrondissment”).


OK, I'll come clean and admit that I’ve had a definite prejudice against Henry James for as long as I can remember. But reading Colm Toibin’s “The Master” last month made me think I should give him another try. “The Ambassadors” certainly confirmed my belief in the brilliance of Toibin’s accomplishment. It also changed my opinion of James – though I doubt I’ll ever achieve fanboy status, it was a far more interesting read than I had anticipated.

In “The Master”, Toibin gives us a portrait of James in mid-career, focusing on the period between 1895 and 1900. It’s eerily well done – it’s almost as if he were channeling the spirit of James. Although Toibin is an avowed fan, his depiction of the author seems scrupulously honest and right on the mark. The picture of Henry that emerges is not entirely flattering – that of someone who is fascinated by the workings of the very privileged segment of society into which he was born, with a keen, almost obsessive, eye for the subtleties and complexities of the relationships among the various players, and the talent, determination (and free time) to document it in his writing. Even if that came at a certain emotional cost. In James’s case, that cost appears to have been an inability (or unwillingness) to form truly deep emotional attachments. There seems to have been a pattern of his withdrawing emotionally whenever another person threatened to come too close. This was a man who lived far too much of his life in his own head.

It shows in the writing, of course. Every detail of every character’s action, no matter how minor, is picked apart and analyzed. Characters are presented as being engaged in endless analysis and speculation about how to interpret the actions and motives of others. And if it takes a page and a half to pin down the precise nuance of A’s reaction to a casual snub by B, then so be it – James always assumes that the reader has both the time and interest to stay with him. The odd thing is that, although this can be a little offputting at the beginning, ultimately it becomes kind of hypnotic. He is so clearly fascinated by the inner world of his characters that he ultimately draws you in. The plot of “The Ambassadors” is wafer-thin. But the author’s focus on the psychology of his characters is so intense (and so believable) that one is motivated to keep on reading. This was not a dull book.

Much is made of Henry James’s style, and I just don’t get it. This is a man who never met a subordinate clause he didn’t like, with a definite preference for the baroque. Hemingway he’s not. But his penchant for convoluted sentences means that he’s not particularly easy to read. On any given page, there is likely to be at least one sentence that you will have to read three times over, and still not be sure you understand what he was trying to say. (He has a way of nesting negative particles in his various subordinate clauses that is particularly evil – I’d find myself counting them on my fingers, trying to figure things out). Stylistically, the writer he reminds me most of is Thomas Mann, who also had a penchant for long, complicated sentences. At least James wasn’t writing in German, so there is a limit to how convoluted things get. Personally, I don’t consider opacity to be a virtue. YMMV.

A book that was far more interesting than I had anticipated, and which definitely changed my mind about Henry James.

Profile Image for BAM the enigma.
1,899 reviews379 followers
August 24, 2019
Catching up with the classics # 20

I️ am not a fan, but I️ WILL finish

I hate this book. I'm never going to finish this

For god sake! I read this entire book with the main male character, Strether, making everything his business, for him only at the end to say that that none of it his his business. WTH was this book about then, James?????

You must have been paid by the prepositional phrase! And had no editor to tell you that most of your novel was extraneous. I finally threw up my hands when you wrote the "want to want to" conversation. REALLY?!?!?

I took the time to read this and that is how it fucking ends???? Really, Strether?!?! What a dude!
Profile Image for Katia N.
587 reviews706 followers
May 6, 2020
If I've figured the one thing about this novel for certain, that it is not a realistic novel. At least not in the sense of the 19th century. The people populating it are not real. Lets take the main character Lewis Lambert Strether (even the name is ridiculous). He arrives to Paris from Woollett, Massachusetts to fetch Chad, the son of his fiancé and the heir of a manufacturing empire on her request. He appears at the same time the man of great imagination and fantastically perceptive man at that. He manages to read the romantic intention of a young girl by watching her for a few minutes standing on the balcony. At the same time, he misses something which is dead obvious in other romantic relationship he is in charge to actually break. Lets take Chad, his charge. That man, we are told, has greatly improved in Europe, has become refined and “beautiful”. But he acts as an infantile and not very bright moron. And I am not even talking about a bunch of very strong-willed, but weirdly disoriented women cast (that is apart from the ones from Whoollett). So in short, the characters can be both: perceptive and simpleminded, daft and refined, free-will and puritanic. Such characters do not exit in realism, but they do in modernism and even in post-modernism.

So, this book, I think is just a game for James. He cannot be bothered with realism or true psychological depth when he plays his comedy. It is also made obvious with the famous question: what is that the manufacturing empire producing? The multiple generation of the readers keep guessing until now. He has teased people with that somewhere at the beginning of the novel. But I seriously doubt James knows himself. That is not the point. And I guess, if one would not share his sardonic, slightly evil sense of humour, this book might become a torture.

I found the dialogues very funny. The blanks in them, the repetitions, the expletives. It is difficult to convey what i mean without a huge quote. But for example, the use and overuse of the words like “wonderful”, “beautiful” “deep” (in the context of a person) or sharp (in the context of the situation) might indicate the narrowness of James’s sensual vocabulary. We know it could not be further from the case. Some people would be irritated. But it made me smile - again someone else is being wonderful!

Is it the first novel addressing middle-life crisis? I’ve read somewhere that the term has not been coined until the 60s of the 20th century. But our lovely Strether has come to Paris to experience it and he jolly well does. I do not know whether it sounded revolutionary in 1904. Many people, especially of a male gender come to a certain age and try to regain whatever was missed earlier, often in a romantic sphere. It is described poignantly here but again the situations constantly border the comic ones: he “relapsed into the sense- which had for him in these days most of the comfort - that he was free to believe in anything that from hour to hour kept him going.” It is a great sentence, isn’t it? On the one level, it is a perfect life philosophy. On the other, it is simple wishful thinking. So, it depends on the user very much.

Sometimes i felt that while writing James was not quite sure where he was going to end with all of this. And that let me down somewhat as I was primed on suspense and psychological depth of his short stories. I expected the powerful twist at the end. It has come. But the power of it was actually in the banality of the revelation. Was it James’s strength on this occasion? I am not sure. But I think what was definitely very strong in the novel was leaving a lot of open possibilities at the very end. Since I came up with my perceived “what happened next”, I’ve read very different perceived ends from the others. And this is what I appreciate the most in the novels.

And now, the sentences. One certainly need to work on them. Though after the first 20 pages or so it is becoming much easier. Some of them are truly beautiful as only a language can be:

This one is about Paris: “the vast bright Babylon. like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.” In general, the sense of place in the book is magic.

And not all of them are so long. This one is almost Joycean: “He only glowered grandly at the tops of the old gables.”

But some of the sentences, while deciphered individually, do not come to much in terms of meaning. I guess it is not always the point. The idea has come to me quite late in the book to listen to it on audio. And yes, it is great. These sentences flow audibly with all musicality of the language. And the dialogues stood out as well. I might listen to the whole book one day.

I am new to James. I liked this novel a lot. But it did not beat for me “Aspern papers” and other stories in the only other book by him I’ve read before so far The Aspern Papers and Other Tales. Those were “deeper” using the one of James’s favourite words in this book. This novel is clearly not for everyone. But it could very entertaining for the right sort of a reader.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Urello.
79 reviews6 followers
August 30, 2016
I’m sure Henry James is a genius and all, but untangling his prose is like trying to talk to a verbose, over-educated person who’s drunk off his ass but refuses to pass out. For example, he might start off with “The effect of the man’s speech was as if he were a tippler who…” then meanders here, there, and over there to the other bar, and then wanders back toward you, but veering off at the last second, borrows several drinks (by which I mean to imply words) off surrounding tables (by which I mean, words that ought to belong to other sentences entirely), and then, seeing the end of the sentence approaching (which, by continuation of our metaphor, would be meant to suggest the end of the night, or bed, or the end of drinking festivities, which drunk would prefer at all accounts to avoid and so stalls to keep off at a distance), he throws any number of adverbs, barstools, prepositions, gerunds and the like in between himself and that end, and once you are fully convinced he has lost all sight of his aim in telling you the original anecdote he had introduced, he sometimes arrives back at that point, but other times, he does not, and if you were to map his meanderings, it would take a smarter person than most readers nowadays to derive any sense from it, and at that point, the other woman whirled right out of the room, and the first, though not affected by the same thing to the same degree of the latter, or rather, it was the same thing, but she did not derive from it the same intent, but was nevertheless affected in a different way of her own, said, “My word, what a lot of…” but then hung fire.

So, that’s what reading The Ambassadors is like all the way through. The other problem with the book is that it was written in a time when Americans had a hard time believing anybody on Earth was actually fucking, since nobody in America was. The premise of the book is that the narrator has been sent to bring back his fiancé’s son, who is having an illicit affair with a married (she’s permanently separated from her abusive husband) woman in Paris, but when he gets there, he really likes the woman and he really likes Paris, and he really likes the son more than he did before, and so he decides the son might be better off there. But he convinces himself (somewhat) that maybe the son’s relationship with the married woman isn’t technically sexual, and then (spoiler alert…?) at the end, he has this big realization when he can’t pretend anymore that it isn’t. Except, being a modern young woman, I didn’t get that AT ALL, and read the whole thing assuming that he knew they were a full-fledged couple, but that he didn’t, in these particular circumstances, think it was immoral. So then, when his grand realization came, I was all, “Oh, wait, hold on. This was a thing? Oh, I guess it was THE thing. Where have I been?”

JUST SAY WHAT YOU MEAN, HENRY JAMES!! Actually, this is a really hilarious novel when looked at in hindsight, but as you’re thwacking through the jungle of it, it’s pretty tiresome, and also, I think I am far too stupid to understand this book.
Profile Image for AC.
1,722 reviews
June 9, 2015

I have been reading quite a bit of James. Last year, I audio’d The Bostonians and Washington Square. I read The Aspen Papers, reread Beast in the Jungle, and read Turn of the Screw (which I disliked -- found it excruciating). And then this spring read a large collection of James’ stories (ed. Fadiman), then Wings of the Dove, and now The Ambassadors. I love the late James... Even though these books are long, and there is a certain degree of artificiality in the dialogue (much worse in Dove; much more economical in The Ambassadors), these two late novels represent a form of psychological thriller, the patient unraveling, layer by layer, of the inner drives (and narrative outcomes) of some remarkably rich characters. Kate Croy…, Strether…, Madame de Vionnet – all remarkable, and none more so than the latter two. It is shocking to find James creating a female character that one actually has the hots for! (And Maria Gostrey is a close second…!!). And Strethers… what a character HE is…!

I am surprised at the ambivalence about this book. It is an absolute masterpiece, in my opinion. I found nothing flabby or any excess in Ambassadors – while it is a slow and patient read – it is nearly perfection.

The one thing I would add – that makes the Ambassadors a bit difficult -- is that it is NOT (as Dorothea Krook correctly saw) actually a tragedy (as one expects from James). It is utterly tragic AND utterly comic… and it is not until the very end that one sees precisely how.

I’ll have to rest now from my James feast, and leave the Golden Bowl for a future repast, while I catch my breath.
1,273 reviews42 followers
March 12, 2020
American man overthinks in Paris.
Profile Image for Gary Inbinder.
Author 8 books176 followers
February 6, 2017
Lambert Strether, the needy editor of a little New England literary magazine, is sent to Paris by his patroness, wealthy Mrs. Newsome. His mission as "ambassador" or emissary for the Newsome family is to fetch the wayward heir Chad and return him to the USA to work in the family business. Strether's presumed reward upon successful completion of his mission, would be marriage to his rich patroness.

During a stopover in England, Strether meets Maria Gostrey who acts as a guide for the innocent American about to confront the strange ways of Europe. However, once in Paris other guides emerge, including Chad's expat artist friend, Little Bilham and a sophisticated French woman, Chad's mistress.

Strether soon falls under the spell of Paris and his charming new companions. In fact, Chad and company play Strether the way Heifetz played the violin, but Strether is a more than willing "victim". As he says to Little Bilham, "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to." Strether having failed in his mission, Mrs. Newsome arrives with ambassadorial family in tow to ratchet up pressure on delinquent Chad.

A masterpiece of James's late period, it's the sort of book readers either love or hate. There's no middle ground with an uncompromising artist like Henry James.


In the end, Chad decides to return to the USA and go into business. What is it that convinces Chad to abandon Paris and all its culture, sophistication and old world charm? The modern American art and science of advertising! Priceless.

THE WOOLLETT MASS. MYSTERY: What do the Newsome's manufacture in Woollett? Clue: it's small, and no one seemed to want to say exactly what it was. Many guesses as to the nature of this mysterious product have been made since the book was first published.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Genia Lukin.
232 reviews179 followers
October 16, 2011
That's it. I must accept this. I am chronically unable to understand what he's actually saying. It's as though he is writing in a language I haven't studied; some sort of pidgin that throws in a few words of English here and there. I freely admit defeat, and add James-lexia to my store of Kafkaphobia and Joyce-pathia.
Profile Image for Alan.
Author 6 books302 followers
April 24, 2021
I read this in college, in a seminar on Dickens and James with Prof G Armour Craig (later interim Pres of Amherst College). I know I wrote one of my best papers on this novel, culminating in revelations at the ending: of course, Jamesian narrators are very surprised by sophisticated European affairs that more naive Americans are drawn into. Their "education" may include moral torment, as here, little Bilham, "But being in love isn't, here, thought necessary, in strictness, for marriage" (169, Norton Critical). Once home, I shall find my copy and look for my notes, to fill out a review.
I still haven't found my copy of the novel, though I did locate my essay on it for Armour Craig's Eng 68, AmColl '65, which I dust off and--beware--publish. Start with some quotations, "Was it after all a joke that he should be serious about anything?" (124, dif ed). There was "simply a lie in the charming affair"(311). "'Ah prepare while you're about it,' said Strether,"to be more amusing.'Well, you are amusing--to me.' 'Impayable, as you say, no doubt,'But what am I to myself?'"(132)
In my college essay, "James's education for Strether I suppose to work from a seriousness to an appreciation of art in human [French] terms, to a final, higher seriousness, the seriousness of personal core beyond art, known through revealing intimacy." "The critical problem with this novel focuses in the ending. I take the ending to be meant as 'serious,' a high American magnanimity manifested in final self-sacrifice. What Strether has learned is sufficient for his deepest happiness. But I think this is contrived. James ends the novel so completely that Strether is going back to a world which can in no way be seen in the novel; it is an 'other' world. 'Yes, he goes back other, and to other things," James says in his project for the novel.

Strether has been offered the opportunity to live, but he sacrifices it 'to be right.' "Not, out of the whole affair, to have got anything for myself" (last page) sums American generosity as HJ saw it. The woman he abandons points out, "but with your wonderful impressions you'll have got a great deal." Yes, for a novelist, for H James, who fills his novel with impressions, vision and double-vision. Strether sacrifices for no alternative; he is gaining nothing but an escape from the world he has rejected. His education is a joke; he has learned that he is 'grey,' but he chooses to become even greyer. It is a joke that James's highest seriousness fails to open Strehter's path to intimacy."

Oh, as for this edition I did not use in 1965, edited by Harry Levin, I once had a great discussion with him over lunch at the Shakespeare Association of America, or possibly the RSA. We happened to sit next each other at a round table for eight. I had quoted, depended on Levin as a T.A. in a Minnesota Joyce courses, as well as for my knowledge of comparative lit, and I had recently heard his fine talk on Shakespeare and certain other classics. But at the table we largely discussed my Amherst Coll Shakespeare prof, Theodore Baird, who had invented a great Freshman Writing course, he and my own freshman teacher, Armour Craig. On leave from Amherst, Craig had taught a Harvard novel course though his Ph.D. there had been in 17C lit. Baird was a renegade from Harvard, doubted its teaching of writing and sometimes its scholarly writing, too. Baird had been a student of Kittredge's, and always joked about his often dreaming of examinations: "Sometimes I do very well."
Profile Image for Don.
303 reviews3 followers
June 4, 2012
Yeah, so reading this novel is basically like driving through Indiana. That's the analogy I'm going to use. It's like driving through Indiana. You know, it's long, it's generally boring. You start drifting off. Instead of focusing on the road, you're mind begins to wander. You tell yourself to stay focused, but that doesn't work, because now you're just thinking about staying focused, you're still not paying attention to the road. But then once you get through it, once you're out of Indiana, you're happy, you're glad you made the trip, because now you're in Illinois, you're now approaching Chicago, and Chicago is really a pretty fricking amazing place. So yeah, that's what reading this novel is like.
Profile Image for Daniel Villines.
396 reviews54 followers
May 27, 2019
I can’t. Ok? I just can’t do this. I can’t spend hours reading through paragraphs that span pages filled with trivial contemplations. These paragraphs are comprised of sentences that second guess themselves before they end. Some may cheer this book as a literary accomplishment, but as a consumer of great stories, I can honestly say that this story is so overburdened by words that the story is hardly there.
Profile Image for Jee Koh.
Author 22 books167 followers
December 30, 2008
A Perched Privacy

I finish reading this novel feeling exalted and cowed by what a man may accomplish in a work of fiction. Human relationships, so various, so changing, so beautiful, are so variously, changeably and beautifully conceived here that they constitute a cause for moral uplift and terror. Flying from an apparent bedrock of ethical certainties, fine discriminations flutter in the air, and cannot find a sure place to land. All (a word that punctuates the novel like an orgasmic cry) is guesswork: who is the "wicked" Frenchwoman holding Chad Newsome back from returning to Woollet, Massachusetts, to take up his responsibility as heir to a great manufacturing concern? how is Lambert Strether, himself a fiance and supplicant to Chad's formidable mother, to convince the prodigal son of his duty? what, really, is one's duty to life?

The third person narrative, told entirely through the perspective of Strether, dramatizes the changes in his consciousness wrought by the atmosphere of the city of Paris. Yet, he does not bring nothing to the alchemical experiment; he carries a sense of advancing age and professional failure, a sense that is old with him, true, but also young enough for its modification, and, even, transformation. For in Chad, Strether sees a younger self that he never had. I use "had" deliberately. The fine women Strether encounters in Paris are described with deep admiration, but young man receives the only extended description of physical person. Arriving at Chad's house, Strether saw another young man smoking on the third floor balcony:

He was young too then, the gentleman up there--he was very young; young enough apparently to be amused at an elderly watcher, to be curious even to see what the elderly watcher would do on finding himself watched. There was youth in that, there was youth in the surrender to the balcony, there was youth for Strether at his moment in everything but his own business; and Chad's thus pronounced association with youth had given the next instant an extraordinary quick lift to the issue. The balcony, the distinguished front testified suddenly, for Strether's fancy, to something that was up and up; they placed the whole case materially and as by an admirable image, on a level that he found himself at the end of another moment rejoicing to think he might reach. The young man looked at him still, he looked at the young man; and the issue, by a rapid process, was that this knowledge of a perched privacy appeared to him the last of luxuries. To him too the perched privacy was open, and he saw it now but in one light--that of the only domicile, the only fireside, in the great ironic city, on which he had the shadow of a claim.

I find this passage extremely moving in its contrast of youth and age, its double seeing, its longing for transcendence and domicile ("perched privacy"), and its tenuous claim of belonging in a great ironic city. The style may be impressionistic--seeing the balcony in one light which may, and will, rapidly change to another--but it is also profoundly human.
Profile Image for Johan.
Author 7 books7 followers
December 24, 2008
What a tremendous load of over-articulated crap.
The only reason to write such shite in the era of early Picasso, Freud, Einstein and many other giants of early 20th century is to try to carve out some sort of semblance of a reason to exist...when there really is none. It's one idiot writing about his brethren and sisters for his brethren and sisters. It was published as a serial in The North American Review for minor (read: wannabe) intellectuals in New England in 1903.
Truly an example of the blind leading the blind.

On top of that, the sentences...jeez.

Why is this anyhing but pulp for tissue?
Profile Image for Sketchbook.
679 reviews226 followers
October 24, 2016
An eternal situation. When I lived in Paris the worried mum of an American girl arrived to get her back to the US. Her daughter, a close friend then, had developed, in one year, a style and manner -- a chic, if you will, far beyond her suburban Baltimore roots. She soon had a romcom with a visiting, married US pol that resulted in a Paris abortion, which we treated w hilarity, and, after a 3d year, returned to America and married. She now lives in the midwest. Is that Jamesian or not?

It's not, really, because my friend truly lived without giving up anything. With James there must be melancholy...and a certain suffering. When writing his last celebrated 3 novels (this, plus "Wings" & "Bowl"), James, in his late 50s, finally admitted his pash for sculptor Hendrik Andersen ("I hold you long") and a certain warmth crept into the writing of this fine and lonely writer. The theme here is Live, all you can (later spoofed in "Auntie Mame") -- but what you remember is how Paris opened many to beauty and transformed them. It still happens.

The writing in this 400+ pager is flabby, as I see on a reread. Cut, pls, 200 pages. James (dictating) gets carried away by his own droning meanderings. Maybe he was slobbering over Andersen. Too many scholars elevate these 3 novels, forgetting the perfection of his short stories and novellas. Or the chilly wit in "The Awkward Age." (The dialogue in "The Ambassadors" is, at times, downright awful). So I am skipping any rating.

It's time for fresh, young scholars to study James. Happily, we have the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who published her piercing Jamesian ruminations in 1990 ("Epistemology of the Closet"). The finale to "The Ambassadors" betrays the conflicts within James, though it's marvelously spare. His hero, Lambert Strether, who has learned how to live, says farewell to his loyal, loving confidante Maria Gostrey -- because of integrity, says James; Strether failed in his mission abroad. This is poppycock. He says farewell because he simply isn't interested in her that way.

Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,286 followers
March 4, 2020
He had spoken in the tone of talk for talks sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds…

One would think that, of all the people living on this good green earth, I would be especially prone to loving this particular work of literature. After all, it is about a young American who moved to Europe, fell in love, and then resisted his family’s entreaties to come back and make more money. If you know anything about me, you will know that this has a special resonance. I am also, as it happens, a lover of fancy prose and classic novels. Clearly, in my case, the book’s prospects were extremely favorable.

It is with mild surprise, then, that I report that my feelings are mixed. This is not a novel that one can easily love. It is, rather, a product of James’s infamous late style, which divided critics at the time and has continued to do so ever since. There are many ways to characterize this style—dense, laborious, obscure—but I think that the keynote here is vague. Both in his descriptive passages and his dialogue, James maintains a kind of studious vagueness that can be either delightful or infuriating, depending on your mood and taste. In everything from his sentence structure, to his dialogue, to his descriptions, to his plotting—vagueness reigns.

To indulge in highfalutin terminology, I would say that this is an aesthetic triumph at the expense of humanistic value.

First, the triumph. James, at his best, achieves something like that achieved by the impressionist painters. The strokes of his pen are suggestive rather than illustrative. He asks much of the reader; and this means that the reader becomes an active part of the story. Virtually nothing—not the book’s resolution, nor the personality of the major characters, nor even the meaning of some knotty sentences—is unambiguous, which means that each reader can make the book her own. In other words, James’s late style is quite like the Ostomachion of Archimedes: a set of puzzle pieces that can be assembled in a myriad of ways.

I say that this is an aesthetic triumph because James achieves an effect that is unique, distinctive, novel, and demanding. He creates, in other words, his own aesthetic realm. The cageyness, the uncertainty, the self-referential quirks of this book—we can clearly see, in retrospect, that James was paving the way for literary modernism. And like much of modernism, I think that this aesthetic triumph comes at a great cost to humanistic value.

To simplify matter somewhat, you can describe this loss at the emphasis of form over content. The novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Elliot, Tolstoy—say what you will about them, but they have an awful lot of content. Putting aside whatever explicit messages these novels may carry, they introduce us to concrete places, to remarkable individuals, to unforgettable stories. They capture, in other words, a human reality; and in so doing they help us to come to grips with life itself. Now, do not get me wrong: all of these authors also have aesthetic merits. If they did not, they would not be artists at all—merely columnists. My point is that their artistic style was entirely compatible with a definite view of the world, a view that is communicated in their works. This I call their humanistic value.

My main criticism of this book, then, is that James’s remarkable aesthetic sense overpowered whatever message he wished to transmit. Based on a straightforward reading, the intended message is this: American culture is narrow and materialistic, and it leads people to give up enjoyment for superficial, conventional reasons. We are, thus, presented with a cast of characters who embody this difference. Strether and Chad are exquisitely sensitive to the charms of Europe, and improve under its influence; while other Americans, such as Waymarsh, insistently stay within their narrow horizons.

The problem is, again, the vagueness. James is vague on every detail. How exactly is life in Europe more liberating than life in America? And how exactly have Strether or Chad improved? These may seem like superficial questions, but the entire weight of the plot hinges on them. We cannot come to any moral conclusion without knowing the details. Indeed, James is so impressionistic in his portrayal of the main characters that we can hardly come to any conclusions at all. Do we even like these people? What are they like? Even the ending is veiled in vagueness. Will Chad return to America? And why does Strether decide to return? And is his return a failure, or a success, or what? It is simply impossible to answer these questions.

Perhaps I would have been able to stomach all of these irresolutions if I had absolutely adored James’s style. But I do not. Indeed, I confess to finding James’s prose quite ugly—laborious, convoluted, and dry. There is hardly a passage in this book that one can read aloud without sounding like an alien. The following is entirely typical:
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 has 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.

A few sentences of this may be fine; but pages of it are painful. Granted, James is capable of quite lovely writing. I was enchanted, for example, by his description near the end, of Strether’s venture into the French countryside. Yet, all too often, the book is like this passage: opaque. His dialogue is only slightly better—readable, and yet still plagued by the strained and unnatural cadences of James’s prose. Besides this, James’s characters have the same tendency to vagueness as James himself, and never spell out what they mean.

Obviously this will come down to taste. I like things to be clear and unambiguous. That is my taste. James clearly did not agree. That I liked this book in spite of this divergence is a testament to James’s aesthetic power. He was an artist in the highest sense of the word.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews597 followers
April 27, 2020
“When you presently meet her, all the same you’ll be meeting your mother’s representative – just as I shall. I feel like the outgoing ambassador,” said Strether, “doing honour to his appointed successor.”

Henry James writes notoriously impenetrable fiction, and with 1903's The Ambassadors, he upped the obtuse factor by conceiving a bit of a farce of manners: acting like ambassadors from distinct countries, characters rarely say what they mean to one another, sometimes contradicting themselves in subordinate clause after contrary subordinate clause, and after hundreds of pages of circumlocutious shenanigans, just as this reader's patience and eyestrain were reaching their limits, James makes a rather good point with it all, and it was worthwhile in the end. Ultimately, I more admired than liked this, but am happy I stuck it out.

Henry James wrote an Introduction to my edition, and states that his inspiration for The Ambassadors came from a conversation he had with a young friend, who reported that when he had recently been in Paris, an older gentleman made a speech during a garden party, which James recreates as this:

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? I’m too old – too old at any rate for what I see. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. Still, we have the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t, like me today, be without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it, and now I’m a case of reaction against the mistake. Do what you like so long as you don’t make it. For it was a mistake. Live, live!

James had been so struck by this speech – and by the friend's description of the speaker and the setting within a Parisian garden – that The Ambassadors became his imagined narrative for what led this man to make this speech, and what happened after. And so, James' imagined reconstruction of events:

The book begins with Lewis Lambert Strether – a fifty-five-year-old widower, from the small town of Woollett, Massachusetts – arriving in Europe, where he had been sent by his presumptive fiancée (the rich widow, Mrs. Newsome) in order to retrieve her playboy son who was destined to take over the family business, and who had stopped answering his mother's letters. Strether eventually made his way to Paris in the company of friends new and old, and before he ever found the son, Strether was forcefully struck by the beauty of the city and the first real feelings of freedom he had ever known in his life. When he does encounter the son, Chad, Strether is struck anew by how mature and composed the twenty-eight-year-old had become in his three years abroad, and if it turned out that a woman was behind this transformation – as Mrs. Newsome suspected and decried – Strether failed to see the harm in any relationship that produced such results. Hundreds of pages follow, in which Strether neither directly states nor receives clear information about anyone's actions or intentions, but his extraordinary experiences prompt him to deliver the inspirational speech. When it becomes apparent back in Woollett that Strether was failing in his diplomatic duties, Mrs. Newsome sends her daughter – the formidable Mrs. Sarah Pocock – to take over as ambassador, which comes as a threat to the stability of (the decidedly not wealthy) Strether's future. “Our hero” will then go through several transformations of his own before deciding on his ultimate course of action.

I appreciate that the word games and obfuscation between the characters was rather the point, but I was still often impatient with the dialogue in The Ambassadors. (I also suspected that there was a lot of hanky-panky going on between all of these couples until the proof of one physical relationship sent everyone into a tailspin; am I really to believe that all of this flirty double-talk and intimate dining and men visiting women alone in their rooms after nine p.m. was all talk? The corruptibility of Paris was also one of James' points, according to the Introduction, but how corrupt is talk?) What made this worse was just how wishy-washy Strether himself was – even with an omniscient narrator giving us the benefit of his thoughts, I rarely knew what was going on with this character; which is also apparently the point (to my consternation):

• He was burdened, poor Strether – it had better be confessed at the outset – with the oddity of a double consciousness. There was detachment in his zeal and curiosity in his indifference.

• Thanks to his constant habit of shaking the bottle in which life handed him the wine of experience, he presently found the taste of the lees rising as usual into his draught.

• “There were moments,” she explained, “when you struck me as grandly cynical; there were others when you struck me as grandly vague.”

• He was like one of the figures of the old clock at Berne.
They came out, on one side, at their hour, jigged along their little course in the public eye, and went in on the other side. He too had jigged his little course – him too a modest retreat awaited.

Henry James wrote many such intriguing sentences in this book and made many perceptive comments on human behaviour; wrapping everything in a layer of obscurity to satisfy his own literary sensibilities. Reading The Ambassadors is work. But it all leads to Strether's transformations, which was ultimately satisfying for me; the payoff was worth the effort.
Profile Image for Melindam.
666 reviews293 followers
February 10, 2017
Whenever I think of Henry James (and that does not happen too often), the words obfuscating & convoluted come to mind besides WTF is this supposed to be all about?
Maybe I will give him another try in years to come ....
Profile Image for Meem Arafat Manab.
371 reviews162 followers
June 15, 2017
ত্যানা পেঁচান, কঠিন কঠিন শব্দ ঠেসে দেন, এমন জবরজং ভাষায় লিখুন যে পাঠোদ্ধার করতে নেপোলিয়র কাছে চাকরী নিতে হয়, কি দীনমজুরের কণ্ঠে তুলে দিন সুব্রত অগাস্টিন বা সিকদার আমিনুলের কবিতা, আমি আঙুল তুলবো না। শেষেরটা বাদে প্রতিটাই করেছেন জেমস সাহেব, আমিও নির্দ্বিধায় মেনে নিয়েছি। ভাষাটা খটমট, কিন্তু বিশ্রী না, বরঞ্চ স্বাদু। ইংরেজিতে যা কিছু বলা কঠিন, জেমস দেখা গেলো জানেন, কী করে বলে যেতে হয়। একটু পড়া কষ্ট, জেমস নিজেই বলেছেন, তার বই দিনে পাঁচ পাতা করে পড়ুন, পড়ুন।
আমার সমস্যা হয়েছে যে এই বইয়ের পেছনের গল্পটা ভালো না। ভালো হয়ে উঠতে পারত, একটু একটু করে, কিন্তু হয়নি। একেবারেই হয়নি। চরিত্রগুলি ফিনিয়াস এন্ড ফার্বের চরিত্রদের মত, সারা বই জুড়ে ছুটি কাটায়, আর কথা বলে স্টার জলসার চরিত্রদের মত, বিয়ে করবো, মা কষ্ট পাবে, করবো না, প্রেমিকা কষ্ট পাবে, এইসব এইসব। হেনরী জেমসের ভাষা যেমন সুন্দর, গল্প সেরকমই ঝুলন্ত, আমি ভেবেছিলাম হয়ত মাথায় ভালো কিছু ছিলো, লিখতে গিয়ে পোয়াবারো হয়েছে, কিন্তু ভূমিকা পড়ে আর অ্যাপেন্ডিক্স পড়ে মনে হলো, নাহ্‌, ঢের আশা করা হয়ে গেছে।
অবশ্য ভালো বয়ান বাজে গল্প হলে যে ভালো লাগতই না তা না। এটাও নেহাত বাজে লাগে নাই, পড়তে একটু সময় লাগলো আর কী, প্রায় সপ্তাহ তিনেক। কিন্তু বাজে লাগছেও কিছুটা, এই যে ল্যাম্বার্ট স্ট্রেথার শালা একজনের দিকে তাকাইলো, সেই তাকানোর বর্ণনা জেমস দিয়েছেন পাঁচ পাতা ধরে, সই, তারপর যখন তাকানো শেষ করে তারা চ্যাডের বিয়া দেই কার লগে নিয়ে কথা বলে, বিরক্ত করে দেবার জন্য যথেষ্টই। কিছু না ঘটলে আমারে আটকা অন্য কিছু দিয়ে - নাহ। ত্যানা পে ত্যানা, ত্যানা পে ত্যানা।

আরো কয়েকটা হেনরী জেমস পড়তে হবে। লোকজন বাজে ঢঙে লিখে ভালো গল্প নষ্ট করে, আমি দেখতে চাই এই ভদ্রলোক বাজে গল্প লিখে আর কয়টা ভালো ঢঙ নষ্ট করেছেন। চমৎকার ইংরেজি ভদ্রলোকের, স্বীকার মানি।
Profile Image for Bill Hammack.
Author 7 books86 followers
January 5, 2013
I love Henry James, but he is an acquired taste. I have read the Ambassadors three times, and parts of it many times. While working in DC - 2005 - I got two copies: One for home and one for my office - a few years ago I added a third copy to my office at home.. I followed James advice and read it five pages a day being careful "not to break the thread." I did break the thread twice - so I read it in three extended chunks. (I read five pages a day at the State Department -- if anyone saw me I was reading a book about Ambassadors, so it seemed proper!) When even I start the book I just cannot stop. I found every re-reading very rewarding. I can see clearly now how James as really pared the novel to the absolute minimum - one hears just enough of the conversations between Strether and Chad to realize that they must see each other more often than the author lets on. How amazing that the most vivid characters are the ones seen least: Mrs. Newsome in particular, but even Chad and Waymarsh. James captures the appear of reading a book as rich as the Ambassadors when he has Strether describe Madame de Vionnet's home, or rather, its effect on Strether: "He liked the place she lived in, the picture that each time squared itself, large and high and clear, around here: every occassion of seeing it was a pleasure of a different shade." (Book 12, Chapter I.) Indeed, the pleasure in reading the Ambassadors squares itself each time.
Profile Image for Faye.
278 reviews
June 3, 2014
I didn't finish this book. I would have pushed on through it, but I was reading a collection of Henry James essays at the same time, and when I got to the point where he was criticizing Joseph Conrad (my beloved Joseph Conrad!!) for demanding too much concentration from "the common reader," I figured to heck with it. James demands WAY more concentration from readers of The Ambassadors than Conrad has ever asked of anyone, and with absolutely NO reward of a delicious plot or anything AT ALL exciting happening at any point in the proceedings. I was basically reading it for the sake of education and comparison with other authors, but now... whatever, man. Just to be ornery, I'll read and enjoy a Joseph Conrad novel instead...
Profile Image for Chris Chapman.
Author 3 books27 followers
March 27, 2020
I swam in the extraordinary wordplay of this book and almost drowned at times. Swmming, floating, sinking are metaphors that James uses throughout, the big question being, are you going to let yourself float in the atmosphere of culture, art and sophistication of Paris, or are you going to resist it, in favour of something more banale (like making money in Woollett, the imagined town in the US which many of the characters come from).

Initially I found this experience wonderful. But by the end I tired. The problem is that I find James' writing devoid of passion. He is so involved in constructing, word by word, an incredibly elaborate artifice, he forgets to invest his story with any love. Strether is admittedly a compelling character (one I empathised with in fact). But what about the others? The whole story revolves around the fact that Chad has become a "wonderful" person, from being a less than impressive one in Woollett, apparently, under the influence of the even more "wonderful" Madame de Vionnet. But I don't believe it. I don't feel it. Chad just stands there, looking patrician and self-assured, with his streak of grey hair belying his young age and giving the impression of quiet wisdom. All I have is Strether's repeated claims of how wonderful he is.

Give me Portrait of a Lady any time. Perhaps James was young enough at that time to still love people (maybe accepting 107 party invitations over one winter didn't help). Not only Isabel, but also Osmond, Madame Merle, and Ralph are wonderfully imagined, fully invested with humanity.
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