Part 2, Chapters 4-5
On his second day in London, Strether goes to the theater with Miss Gostrey. As they dine together at his hotel before the play, Strether is enchanted by the soft rose glow of the candles and by the softness of everything about Miss Gostrey. With her low-cut dress and a red velvet band around her neck, Miss Gostrey is much more alluring than Strether’s conservative fiancée, Mrs. Newsome, who wears a black dress with a high neck ruffle, and who never goes out to romantic dinners with him. If Mrs. Newsome is like the pure and imperious Queen Elizabeth, then Miss Gostrey is, he feels, like Mary Stuart.
The play is about a young man who is led astray by a wicked young woman. Strether begins to think about his mission in Europe. He is there to find and bring home Mrs. Newsome’s wayward son, Chadwick Newsome, whom the family believes to be in the hands of some wicked woman in Paris.
Miss Gostrey is fascinated by the story. How can he be sure this woman is so very wicked? Might she turn out to be charming, instead? “Charming?” Strether protests. “She’s base, venal—out of the streets.” Chad, he continues, is an obstinate boy who has made his mother’s life miserable.
Strether describes Chad’s family for Miss Gostrey. Mrs. Newsome is a handsome woman for her age, and leads a large, full life. She puts much of herself into everything, and is “delicate, sensitive, high-strung.” Her daughter, Sarah Pocock, is a married woman of thirty; Strether hints she may not be so charming as her mother. Mr. Newsome died ten years before, leaving a booming business and great quantities of money. Now, the family wishes the twenty-eight-year-old Chad to come home and take his place in the family business, a company that manufactures some type of household item too common and vulgar to mention. She tries to guess what it is—clothespins? saleratus (baking soda)? shoe polish?—but he tells her she’s not even close. Chad might have cause to be a bit embarrassed of the ridiculousness of the product, but he would have even more reason to be ashamed of the original source of the family’s money, which came from his grandfather’s swindling. Strether implies, however, that this is not so unusual, as most American “new money” comes from relatively ignoble sources.
Strether himself does not take part in the business. He is the editor of the Woollett Review, a publication paid for by Mrs. Newsome, as her tribute to the intellectual ideal. Miss Gostrey exclaims that Mrs. Newsome sounds like an important person in Woollett, and he’d better marry her as quickly as he can. She imagines Mrs. Newsome very clearly as a person of upright morals and with beautifully done hair. Strether affirms this, and adds ruefully that while Mrs. Newsome is no sinner, he certainly is—especially being where he is right now, with another woman.
Leaving the theater, Miss Gostrey asks again about Chad. She wonders what effect Paris has had on the young man. “[T]here are…two quite distinct things that—given the wonderful place he’s in—may have happened to him. One is that he may have got brutalized. The other is that he may have got refined.”
Strether has not thought of this before, the possibility that Paris may have refined Chad rather than turned him into a brute. Whatever the case, Strether continues to believe it is best for Chad to return home. There is now a great opportunity for him to join the company and share in its profits. There, he will be “anchored by a strong chain…protected…from life.” And, too, the family wants Chad to marry the bright, pretty Mamie Pocock, the younger sister of Sarah’s husband Jim.
Strether admits that if he fails to bring Chad home, he stands to lose everything. As they say goodbye, Miss Gostrey promises to help her friend succeed. She will be with him, she says, until death. The two part, Miss Gostrey getting into a cab alone, and Strether walking home in the rain.
Strether arrives in Paris and visits the bank. Mrs. Newsome is paying all his expenses in Europe, and he must wait for letters of credit from her to arrive so that he can withdraw funds for his stay in Paris. The letters not having arrived yet, he goes to the theater with Waymarsh. The next day, they have arrived, and he feels he must start his business.
Strether walks along the streets of Paris, looking for a good place to stop and read the letters from Mrs. Newsome. Waymarsh has stayed behind to read his letters at the bank, but Strether wants to enjoy the Paris springtime. He lingers in the garden of the Tuileries, fairly floats up the Rue de Seine, and stops in the Luxembourg gardens. There are four long letters from Mrs. Newsome. Reading them, he has contradictory feelings. He feels ever more strongly connected to her and, at the same time, has an overwhelming sense of freedom, of escaping from her. He feels young and free; he has breathing-time.
Suddenly, Strether realizes that he has been very tired. His life has been a succession of failures; it has been rather solitary and gray. Waymarsh, Mrs. Newsome, and now Miss Gostrey have been the only three people he’s truly been close to, aside from his wife. He lost his wife at an early age, and shortly after, his little boy died from diphtheria while away at boarding school. His only claim to fame is that he is the editor of the Woollett Review, which strikes him as very insignificant.
Now, in Paris, the dreams of Strether’s youth come back to him. Years ago, as a newlywed, he came with his bride to Europe. Back then, he believed he had gained something great. He saw the galleries of the Louvre and collected lemon-yellow volumes of literature, and dreamt of a life spent reading and digesting ideas, of coming back again many times to Europe. Life, however, took a different path. Now, he is here again, gazing at those lemon-yellow books. The green covers of the Woollett Review seem like false shells by comparison; unlike the Parisian volumes, the humble Review is no tribute to higher thought, but only a safe, predictable collection of Mrs. Newsome’s conservative American views on economics, politics, and ethics.
Strether wonders: Is it too late? Has he missed out on life? And, having returned, late in life, so unexpectedly to Paris in springtime, is it even appropriate for him to enjoy some of what he missed out on? After all, he is here to rescue Chad. He cannot be seen to like Paris too much. But then, he can hardly resist the beguiling, sparkling, ever-changing City of Light: “It hung before him this morning, the vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to 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.”
His thoughts go back to Chad. Five years before, Chad had made his first trip to Europe and, after many months of idle fun, wrote home boasting of his connections to the artistic community and hinting that he might take up some artistic career. Strether had envied Chad there, in the Latin Quarter of Paris, enjoying the romantic bohemian lifestyle so famously depicted in Henri Mürger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème. His mother and sister hoped he might at last have found himself. However, they were misled, as Chad merely continued to womanize and party his days away. Chad was simply too vulgar to have taken advantage of the privilege of being in Europe, Strether decides.
Now, Strether proceeds to Chad’s neighborhood on the Boulevard Malesherbes, ready to face the young man and talk some sense into him. This will be something of a surprise visit. Six months before, he wrote to Chad to tell him that he might be coming, but did not specify exactly when. Pausing in the street to look up at Chad’s third-floor apartment, Strether is deeply impressed. The building is elegant and well-built, with a broad balcony. Up on the balcony, looking down at him with some amusement, is a pleasant-looking young man—not Chad, Strether realizes, but probably a friend of his. Strether is struck by the glamour of youth he sees in the young man. He feels that everything around him is suffused by this youthful energy—everything, that is, except himself, and his weary business. He thinks again—in this foreign city, he only has two homes he might claim: the dreary hotel shared with the stern, dour Waymarsh, and this romantic apartment inhabited by a lively, curious young man. When he steps forward, it is as if to escape from one place to the other.
Analysis of Part 2
In Part 2, the reader learns the purpose of Strether’s trip to Europe—to fetch home the wayward son of his fiancée—and how he feels about this mission. The emphasis on Strether’s inner thoughts and motivations is what makes The Ambassadors an excellent example of psychological fiction. Henry James was a master and innovator of psychological fiction (or psychological realism), a form which emphasizes the interior world of the characters.
Most Victorian novels use the omniscient point of view, in which the narrator has an almost godlike insight into all the characters and explains them all for the reader. In The Ambassadors, however, James uses a limited point of view. He examines only what Strether thinks and feels, but leaves others’ thoughts and motives hidden. The effect of this narrower focus is that the reader sympathizes most with Strether and learns along with him as he proceeds on his mission as Mrs. Newsome’s ambassador. Because the point of view is filtered through just one character, it is unreliable. The reader may adopt Strether’s impressions as the truth of the situation, only to find out later that they were misapprehensions and delusions.
In Chapter 5, as Lewis Lambert Strether walks through Paris, thinking to himself, the reader gains much psychological insight into his character. Here is a man who, at age fifty-five, feels he has missed out on life. Once, long ago, on honeymoon in Europe, he dreamt of a lively existence in the world of culture and ideas—he would read books, write, surround himself with art, and make many voyages to Europe. Instead, he met with a succession of disappointments. His professional life was marked by failures, his wife and child died very young, and his life became gray and barren. Strether’s youthful idealism long gone, he became the editor of an uninspiring, morally proper Review in a New England factory town, a far cry from the intellectual journals of continental Europe. Now, late in his life, he has been unexpectedly dropped back into Paris in springtime. It seems that he has a second chance at youth, but will he be free to take it? He is torn between his mission—which is to pull a young, errant man out of the bohemian world of Paris back to his rightful place in the industrial world of America—and an impulse to recapture what he has lost, or missed, in his own youthful days:
He wasn’t there to dip, to consume—he was there to reconstruct. He wasn’t there for his own profit—not, that is, the direct; he was there on some chance of feeling the brush of the wing of the stray spirit of youth. He felt it in fact, he had it beside him; the old arcade indeed, as his inner sense listened, gave out the faint sound, as from far-off, of the wild waving of wings (Chapter 5).
The character of Miss Gostrey is an important device to further the narrative of The Ambassadors. Through Strether’s conversations with her, the reader learns the background of Strether’s life in Woollett and what Strether’s mission in Europe is to be. She will serve as a springboard for Strether’s thoughts and impressions throughout the novel. Miss Gostrey is not only a passive listener, however. She challenges Strether’s assumptions about Europe; she opens his mind. Indeed, she is a challenge to the strict, noble New England Puritanism of Woollett, which is embodied by Mrs. Newsome and which Strether carries with him as her ambassador.
James makes certain that readers see the contrast between Miss Gostrey and Mrs. Newsome at the beginning of Chapter 4. Miss Gostrey is soft, sensual, and romantic in a low-cut dress, while Mrs. Newsome is pictured as majestic and imperious in her habitual black dress with the high neck ruffle. Mrs. Newsome is like the icy Protestant Virgin Queen Elizabeth, while Miss Gostrey is the Catholic Mary Stuart who threatens to depose her and end her “reign” over Strether. For Henry James, Protestantism is associated with America with its Puritan values and vigorous Calvinist work ethics; Catholicism symbolizes Europe with its sense of the medieval, the mystical, and a sometimes lurid artistic beauty.
Mrs. Newsome and her daughter are certain that Chad is living a debauched life in the clutches of some wicked woman. But, Miss Gostrey asks, why assume that Chad has been “brutalized” or corrupted by his stay in Paris? Might he not, instead, have been “refined”? These are key questions for Strether to consider. At the end of Part 2, as Strether approaches Chad’s home for the first time, the reader is held in suspense as to what he might find there, and what his opinion will be of what he finds.