As the story begins, Lewis Lambert Strether, a middle-aged man from Woollett, Massachusetts, arrives at a hotel in Chester, England. He has just come across the Atlantic by steamer, landing at Liverpool, and is excited to experience Europe for the first time since he was a young man. Here in Chester, Strether has arranged to meet an old friend, Mr. Waymarsh, a successful lawyer from Milrose, Connecticut. The two Americans have not seen each other in several years.
Finding that Waymarsh has not yet arrived at the hotel, Strether is somewhat pleased. He is looking forward to seeing his friend, but he is also enjoying the experience of Europe on his own terms. In the lobby, Strether strikes up a conversation with another hotel guest, an American named Maria Gostrey, whom he had met briefly earlier at Liverpool. Miss Gostrey is not particularly young (she’s in her mid- to late thirties) nor particularly beautiful, but she has an expressive and agreeable face, and Strether is immediately attracted to her. He senses how she sizes him up immediately, and feels that she knows things he does not, something he rarely likes to admit about women. He confesses that he is from a very ordinary American town, and jokes that Miss Gostrey may find him “too hopeless.”
Miss Gostrey, who has been living in Europe for some time and has a home in Paris, offers to show Strether around. They go on a walk together through the medieval walled city of Chester. The two have a strong connection, and Strether feels that something extraordinary is happening to him: he has fallen “utterly into [her] hands.” He also feels nervous and guilty, hinting that he has “somebody” back home and that they are doing something improper.
Miss Gostrey guesses what Strether is feeling and asks him to let her help him relax and enjoy himself. She explains that she routinely acts as a guide for American expatriates, like him, newly arrived in Europe. She doesn’t do it for money or any particular advantage; it just seems to have become her fate. Watching Strether as he nervously checks his watch, she guesses something else: he is intimidated by Waymarsh. He admits to this, and asks her to help him not to be so fearful of everything. She says, “Trust me!”
When Miss Gostrey and Strether return to the hotel, Waymarsh is there waiting.
Miss Gostrey, Strether, and Waymarsh dine together and take a moonlight walk to the cathedral. Miss Gostrey has met Waymarsh before—through their mutual acquaintances, the Munsters—but he does not remember her. Strether realizes that Waymarsh might not enjoy Miss Gostrey as much as he does.
Later that evening, the two men sit together in Waymarsh’s room. Being around Waymarsh brings Strether down. The distinguished lawyer has been in Europe for three months, but he is not happy there; his whole attitude is one of discomfort and melancholy. A handsome, successful man with a good income, Waymarsh is seriously depressed. One reason for this is that he has a terrible relationship with his wife—they have been separated for fifteen years, and she travels around Europe wearing too much makeup and sending him nasty letters. Another reason is that he is overworked to the point of nearly having a nervous breakdown. He came to Europe to get a “lift,” but it has not helped him. He feels that Europe is not his kind of place, and he wants to go back home to America.
Waymarsh asks Strether why he has come. Strether says that his main reason was to see Waymarsh; he plans to take him down to London and get his spirits up. Besides, he adds, he has been feeling run down himself and needed to get away. Waymarsh is skeptical. He thinks there must be another reason behind the journey. Perhaps, he asks archly, Strether is running away from his fiancée, Mrs. Newsome? Strether denies this, but admits that the trip does have something to do with her. He is in Europe on Mrs. Newsome’s business, which he will explain in more detail the next day.
The next morning, Strether finds Miss Gostrey in the coffee room having breakfast. Having found out that Strether plans to take Waymarsh to London that afternoon, Miss Gostrey has decided to take an early train to London. She wishes to go separately on purpose so as not to be in their way, but Strether tells her not to make such a fuss. He doesn’t want her to go away just when he’s begun to depend on her. He needs her, for instance, to teach him how to order breakfast in Europe.
Miss Gostrey comments that sometimes, after she has educated Americans on the complex social etiquette of Europe, it is too much for them and they want to go home. She says half-jokingly that it has become, in fact, her mission to get Americans through their European trips quickly and send them back to America, “spent,” without a desire to ever return. Strether asks whether she will try to get rid of him quickly, too, and she says smilingly that he is “a special case.”
The three go to London on separate trains, but meet up there and spend the day together. That day, Strether finds himself becoming even more entranced with Miss Gostrey. She reveals more of her feelings for him, acknowledging that although she is forever busy with social engagements, she would gladly skip any one of them for his sake.
Miss Gostrey works her civilizing magic on Waymarsh, leading him, through subtle hints, to dine and converse like a gentleman. However, over the course of the day, Strether senses a distance growing between himself and Waymarsh. Miss Gostrey, a woman of fashion, is “floating [Strether] into society,” while Waymarsh is “deserted on the brink… watching the force of the current.” Waymarsh is silent as Strether and Miss Gostrey chat happily away about the people they see, analyzing their personalities, faces, and figures. He seems above it all. “He thinks us sophisticated, he thinks us worldly, he thinks us wicked, he thinks all sorts of queer things,” reflects Strether.
Very suddenly, as the three walk along an avenue of shops, Waymarsh dashes to the opposite side of the street and disappears into a jewelry store. “What’s the matter with him?” asks Miss Gostrey. Strether says that Waymarsh can’t stand Europe, and he has “struck for freedom.” They wonder what he will buy there, Miss Gostrey deciding that it will be something “dreadful.”
As they discuss Waymarsh, Strether remarks that it is wrong of him to talk about his friend behind his back—after all, that is something Waymarsh would never do. Miss Gostrey says that the only reason Waymarsh won’t talk about people is because he is too stupid to do it. Strether denies this, saying quietly, “He’s a success of a kind that I haven’t approached…I’m a perfectly equipped failure.” But Miss Gostrey only says, “Thank goodness you’re a failure—it’s why I so distinguish you! Anything else to-day is too hideous. Look about you—look at the successes. Would you be one, on your honor?” She adds that she, too, is a failure. She’s never achieved the dreams of her youth. It is their failure that has brought them together. Strether is moved. He hints to Miss Gostrey that he is ready to give up everything he has for her.
Waymarsh returns, with a fierce and intense look in his eye, saying nothing about his sudden departure, nor disclosing what he purchased in the jewelry store. Strether finds Waymarsh both “sombre” and “almost sublime.” He decides that Waymarsh possesses a “sacred rage”—a kind of pure, uncompromising morality that makes men like him superior in a decadent society. It is hinted that Strether will later embrace this morality, while Miss Gostrey will not.
Analysis of Part 1
The Ambassadors is a novel about the difference between Europe and America—a common theme in the work of author Henry James. For James, Europe stands for culture, refinement, and civilization, while America stands for simplicity and vulgar provincialism. At the same time, Europe represents an idle way of life and a moral decadence against which an industrious, Puritan America fiercely and nobly rebels.
The first three chapters of the novel contrast the reactions of two American friends, Waymarsh and Strether, to the European experience. The two are completely different in the way they experience their trips. Waymarsh is depressed in Europe; he can’t seem to adjust. “[T]his ain’t my kind of country,” he confesses wearily. The stern lawyer is a stiff, laconic failure in cultured conversation; he thinks Miss Gostrey’s and Strether’s discussions frivolous. As will be mentioned in the next chapter, he has no interest in the theater or any of the other cultural offerings of London. Strether, however, blossoms in Europe. He feels exhilarated by the high culture, the balconies, the theaters, and the charm of everything and everyone, particularly Miss Gostrey, the self-appointed “general guide” to American sojourners abroad.
Strether and Miss Gostrey, then, are on the side of Europe, while Waymarsh represents America. The former two enjoy the pleasures of clever conversation; they enjoy discussing who is fashionable and who is not; they care, for instance, about the proper way to order breakfast. But Waymarsh is above it all, or outside it. He wishes to be free of all that he judges “wicked…worldly…sophisticated.” When Waymarsh crosses to the other side of the street as the trio are walking in London, he symbolically distances himself from Strether’s and Miss Gostrey’s “European” ideology. Ultimately, to some degree, Strether will come to see Waymarsh as the nobler and better man.