Part 5, Chapters 10-12
On Sunday of the following week, Strether prepares for his first meeting with the two ladies, Madame de Vionnet and her daughter. The meeting will take place in the home of the famous sculptor Gloriani (a fictional character). The sculptor’s home is a treasure hidden among the gardens of noble houses, with the rarefied air of a convent. Gloriani himself is a handsome man with genius in his eyes, and appears to Strether bathed in the light, the romance, of glory. Strether feels, in the instant Gloriani regards him, as if his whole life is on trial; he sees the wondrous world of beauty illuminated by an aesthetic torch, and at the same moment, a long, straight shaft sunk into him as by a penetrating mind.
Having been examined by Gloriani, Strether wonders if he’s passed the test or failed it. The others at the party are fascinating people, Bilham tells him: “artists…ambassadors, cabinet ministers, bankers, generals...some awfully nice women…sometimes an actress, an artist, a great performer….and, in particular, the right femmes du monde [French for ‘women of the world’].” But among the group, there are never any bores. Madame de Vionnet and her daughter have not arrived yet, and Strether takes the opportunity to ask Bilham about them. Bilham acknowledges that the mother is not a widow; her husband is still alive. He intimates that Chad may be in love with the daughter.
Miss Barrace and Bilham playfully discuss which Americans hold up against the charms of pagan Europe and which allow themselves to be seduced. Bilham acknowledges that he himself has been, not only converted by the “savages,” but eaten alive by them: “I’m but the bleached bones of a Christian.” Waymarsh, notes Miss Barrace, is one who will never be converted. “He’s like the Indian chief one reads about, who, when he comes to Washington to see the Great Father, stands wrapped in his blanket and gives no sign.”
Bilham notes that Miss Barrace, too, has a “moral distinction.” She knows strange people, it is true, and in the light of Paris she may seem herself somewhat corrupt, but in fact she is not. In the light of Paris, few people do show for what they truly are. “Does Mme. de Vionnet…show for what she is?” Strether wants to know. Miss Barrace does not hesitate: “She’s charming. She’s perfect…. She’s wonderful.”
At this moment, Chad comes to take Strether to meet the lady herself.
Chad leads Strether to the house and presents him to the lady. Mme. de Vionnet, dressed in a light black dress, appears youthful, fair, and slim. Her eyes are “far apart and a little strange,” and although she speaks perfect English, she has a slight accent unlike any Strether has heard before. Chad goes into the house to find the daughter, Jeanne de Vionnet, leaving Strether alone with the lady.
Strether finds Mme. de Vionnet quite frank and familiar, not unlike any other lady he might meet in Woollett—and yet, she is completely different than anyone he has ever met before. In their short talk, she reveals to him that she knows Miss Gostrey well, a fact which surprises Strether. Immediately afterward, she is whisked away from him by several apparently important strangers, among them a duchess and a man who appears to be an ambassador. Neither of them are introduced to Strether.
Abandoned to himself, Strether reflects. He doesn’t care to be introduced into this fine society, he confesses to Bilham; he doesn’t truly belong here among these distinguished people, and it is simply too late for him. “Better late than never!” declares Bilham cheerily, but Strether suddenly knows, in his heart, that this is not true. For him, the moment has been lost forever. At any rate, he declares, it’s not too late for Bilham. He turns to the young man, encouraging him passionately: “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 see it now. I haven’t done so enough before—and now I’m old; too old at any rate for what I see.… Do what you like as long as you don’t make my mistake. For it was a mistake. Live!”
Bilham is for a moment solemn; then, he confesses that he would not want to be very different from Strether when he is that age himself. Strether, for his part, says that if he had a choice, he would be like Chad Newsome—the wonderful, glorious Chad, who, at that moment, is parading toward them with the beautiful flower of a girl, Jeanne de Vionnet, on his arm.
Jeanne de Vionnet is prettier than her mother, and shy. She asks Strether if he will be so kind as to visit them soon, as her mother has something particular to say to him. Strether assumes that this “particular” will be something about Chad’s engagement to her daughter. Probably Mme. de Vionnet will appeal to him to make some arrangement whereby her daughter will not have to move to America. Certainly, he realizes, such a young lady as this will not want to go to such a place as Woollett.
Moments later, Jeanne de Vionnet leaves the party with her mother, calling “Au revoir, monsieur!” Bilham disappears as well, and Strether is again left alone.
Chad does not return, but eventually Miss Gostrey appears and explains that Chad has left with the ladies. Strether is happy to see her and share what he has learned in his first foray into “the world of ambassadors and duchesses.”
“It’s the child!” he exclaims to his friend, convinced now that he has solved the mystery of Chad’s attachment—Chad loves Jeanne de Vionnet. Miss Gostrey replies that if she had only known the names of the ladies, she would have been able to tell him all about them long ago. Mme. de Vionnet is an old school friend of hers whom she has not seen in several years. Miss Gostrey intends to avoid her from now on, not wishing to be caught in the middle.
As they walk through the gardens together, Miss Gostrey explains more about the history. She and Mme. de Vionnet were students in Geneva together twenty-three years before, which makes them both thirty-eight—ten years older than Chad. The daughter of a French father and an English mother, Mme. de Vionnet was clever in school, dazzlingly charming, and able to speak many languages. Her father died when she was young, and her mother remarried. Shortly after Mme. de Vionnet left school, her mother married her off to a Count, who proved to be a brute. Mme. de Vionnet has lived apart from him for years—for which nobody blames her—but for reasons of propriety, she will never divorce her husband.
Mme. de Vionnet, Miss Gostrey concludes, is wonderful; she is as many-tongued as the Catholic Church and, it is implied, just as skilled at gaining converts. It is Mme. de Vionnet who has been responsible for the remarkable transformation of Chad. She has done it—Miss Gostrey surmises—for her daughter. Now she is counting on Strether to seal the deal. Strether must go and see Mme. de Vionnet, but he is unsure of how to handle her. After all, he was expecting an entirely different sort of woman. It would be so much simpler if she were the harlot he was expecting.
The next day, Chad comes immediately to Strether’s hotel, full of earnestness. Mme. de Vionnet wishes to see Strether right away, he says. “Are you engaged to be married—is that your secret—to the young lady?” demands Strether. Chad says that he is not engaged. In fact, it is Mme. de Vionnet herself to whom Chad is attached: “She’s too good a friend, confound her…. [Leaving her] will be the greatest loss I ever suffered. I owe her so much.”
Strether is moved. Convinced that Chad’s attachment to the Countess is a virtuous one after all, he reproaches himself for all the bad things he suspected or believed. He promises that he will surrender himself to Mme. de Vionnet if Chad will agree to surrender himself to Strether. However, he still has some reservations. “Is she bad?” he finally asks. “Is her life without reproach?”
Chad answers without hesitation. “Absolutely without reproach. A beautiful life. Allez donc voir! [Go and see for yourself!]” They arrange that Chad will pick Strether up at a quarter to five that evening for his meeting with the lady.
Analysis of Part 5
In Part 5, Strether is exposed to the glamorous social world of Paris, exemplified by the “glorious” Gloriani and his rarefied circle. Paris—indeed Europe generally—is everything that Woollett—and by extension America—is not. Here may be found duchesses and ambassadors and best of all, fabulous femmes du monde [women of the world] like Mme. de Vionnet. Meeting the Countess for the first time, Strether is aware that she is like no woman he has ever met. Certainly, she could never be found in Woollett.
Still, Strether is not sure what to think of Mme. de Vionnet. The conversations about her relationship to Chad have so far been loaded with suggestions and allusions. Nothing is clear. Bilham and Chad are not telling Strether exactly what is going on, and allow him to assume what he will about the situation. First he assumed the worst—that Chad was attached to some harlot. Then, after meeting the Countess, he assumed the best—that Chad was engaged to her beautiful young daughter. This now not appearing to be the case, Strether is confused again. He is inclined to believe that Chad’s relationship with the countess is a virtuous one, but he cannot be sure. Things are not black-and-white as he, and those back in Woollett, have assumed them to be. He has fallen into a moral gray area.
It is Strether’s awakening consciousness of himself, and of what is important in life, which makes his moral judgment falter. In Europe he has begun to question the smug, stolidly closed-minded world of Woollett—a place with only “three or four” opinions—and his attitudes about propriety have radically changed. He realizes, too late, that he has lived his life wrongly; he’s limited himself. Strether’s speech to the young Bilham (“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to”) is one of the most important passages of the novel, and one of its dramatic climaxes, or points of great suspense and interest in the plot. Strether is a man who missed out on life. It is only now, in the City of Lights, that he is enlightened as to what exactly he missed. He wishes he could be like Chad, with the world in his hands. How, then, the reader wonders, can Strether proceed with his mission to bring Chad home?