Part 6, Chapters 13-15
Chad brings Strether to meet Mme. de Vionnet, then leaves, saying he has a prior engagement. The countess’s house is old, reminding Strether of ancient Paris, and opens on a courtyard. It is filled with what seem to be antiques inherited from generations past, relics like old miniatures, medallions, pictures, and books that fascinate the American. Everything has, for him, an “air of supreme respectability,” and he is more and more convinced that Mme. de Vionnet is unlike any other woman he has ever known.
Mme. de Vionnet looks at him with “suppliant eyes.” She is clearly a woman in trouble and needs Strether’s help. Her request, she says, is her own thing and not known to Chad, but she does not explain what exactly it is that she wants. Strether says that he has already delayed Chad’s return all he can, and Mrs. Newsome is already upset with him; he is not sure now what more he can do for Chad and Mme. de Vionnet. Mme. de Vionnet falters, then asks: “Has she given you up?” “Not yet,” he replies. “ A woman can’t,” she says solemnly, with a deep and beautiful smile.
What is it, Strether pursues, that Mme. de Vionnet wants? She explains that she doesn’t want Jeanne to marry Chad, and Chad doesn’t want to marry Jeanne either—although Jeanne may in fact be in love with him. What she asks is that Strether plead her case to Mrs. Newsome. He should tell her that he likes Mme. de Vionnet and little Jeanne, and explain how good Mme. de Vionnet has been for Chad. In some way, she believes, this will “save” her. Still without fully understanding, Strether agrees, saying, “I’ll save you if I can.”
Ten days later, Strether dines with the de Vionnets at Chad’s home. Chad arranges for him to talk alone with Jeanne de Vionnet. “It will really be a chance for you to see the jeune fille—I mean the type—as she actually is,” he explains. Strether surmises that Chad really just wants him to see how favorably Jeanne compares to Mamie. He has the feeling he’s being used, but he’s not sure to what purpose.
Strether asks himself if he is working for Mrs. Newsome’s best interests. He reassures himself that he is doing all he can by writing and telling her everything that is happening. Their correspondence is quite brisk now that he has so much to tell. He has told Mrs. Newsome of his meeting with the Countess, describing how lovely he found her, but being careful to note that he has rejected further offers to visit her. The only thing he has not mentioned is that he has promised to “save” Mme. de Vionnet.
Strether enters the petit salon where Jeanne de Vionnet is seated talking to Mme. Gloriani. “I’m just as English as I can be,” insists the girl, by way of explaining herself, “Oh, but I’m almost American too. That’s what mamma has wanted me to be—I mean like that; for she has wanted me to have lots of freedom. She has known such good results from it.” Jeanne seems to like and trust Strether, whom she likely views as a very old man. Strether notes that the young girl is modest, quaint, and beautiful. In short, she is “thoroughly bred…an exquisite case of education.”
Gloriani enters the room in search of Mlle. de Vionnet. His eye catches a painting, and he admires Chad’s taste in art. The great artist casts his eye on Strether—his glance no longer searching or piercing, but vacant, as if he has already dismissed him—and then replaces Strether on the couch next to the young lady.
Miss Barrace appears at Strether’s side, speaking with her usual ironic humor. Strether feels that there is something significant under her irony just now, but can’t figure out what it is. Miss Barrace tells him that Mme. de Vionnet is now talking with Waymarsh. However, the Countess is not as intrigued by the lawyer as Miss Barrace herself is. She finds him boring, and he is unimpressed by her as well.
What is it about Mme. de Vionnet, Strether wonders aloud, that makes her so magnificent? It’s not her beautiful shoulders, they decide. “Why, it’s she, simply. It’s her mood. It’s her charm,” Miss Barrace declares. “[S]he’s just brilliant…. She’s fifty women.” Will she divorce to marry Chad? Strether wonders next. Miss Barrace says no. Anybody can marry, she points out, but it’s more beautiful to just stay as they are.
But, Strether persists, is Chad’s and Mme. de Vionnet’s attachment “innocent”? Of course it is, Miss Barrace says gaily, before returning to the subject of Waymarsh. She and Waymarsh get along very well and she likes him very much; she finds him “touching.” He never speaks ill of Strether. He buys her presents—flowers upon flowers. “It’s the sacred rage,” marvels Strether, observing the chivalric instinct in his fiercely moral friend. “The sacred rage, exactly!” exclaims Miss Barrace.
Strether reflects ruefully to himself that Waymarsh is essentially divorced, but he, Strether, has Mrs. Newsome to consider. He is forced to admit that he does nothing at all for Miss Gostrey.
Mme. de Vionnet comes in suddenly, a vision in silvery gray with bare shoulders and an emerald necklace. To the enraptured Strether, she is like a “goddess…a nymph…the femme du monde…Cleopatra…various and multifold.” The Countess insists on seeing Strether alone, and demands to know if Miss Gostrey is avoiding her. Strether is bewildered; all he knows is that he received a note from Miss Gostrey saying that she was going to see a sick friend in the south. Mme. de Vionnet listens sadly. “She’s absent so that I may not see her,” she concludes. “She doesn’t want to meet me again.”
The conversation turns to Jeanne. Mme. de Vionnet wants to know if Strether thinks her daughter is in love with Chad. Strether doesn’t know, and he makes her promise not to find out—she should leave her daughter alone, as the girl is perfect as she is. Mme. de Vionnet gives her solemn promise to do as he says. She also reminds him of his promise to “save” her, and he says he has not forgotten. As she walks away, Strether realizes that instead of disentangling himself from the Countess as he intended, he has become more closely connected than ever.
Strether sits next to little Bilham. Observing Jeanne, he playfully asks why Bilham doesn’t go after her. Bilham claims that she and her mother are too good for him. Furthermore, he says, Chad is involved, and has plans for Jeanne’s future. However, he declines to explain how Chad came to be so involved in the lives of the de Vionnets. Strether feels himself “moving in a maze of mystic, closed allusions.”
At last, Strether feels he has understood. Chad and Mme. de Vionnet are really sharing a “high, fine friendship” that “can’t be vulgar or coarse…and that’s the point.” Bilham agrees solemnly that the pair’s friendship is “the finest thing…and the most distinguished.” Bilham goes on cautiously to say more. At first, it was Chad who was interested in Mme. de Vionnet, he reveals, but little by little, the Countess has come to care more for Chad than he does for her.
Listening to Bilham, Strether is struck with a realization. He, Strether, had planned to save Chad by bringing him home and setting him up in business. But Chad has already been saved—by Mme. de Vionnet. In his “manners and morals, his character and life” she has been his savior; she has “given him an immense moral lift.” After all the Countess has done for him, Strether concludes, Chad must stay in Europe. Even though they can never marry, Chad must never give her up.
Analysis of Part 6
The sixth book marks the end of the first half of The Ambassadors, and a turning point in the plot. From this point onward, Strether’s goal is the opposite of what it was in the first half of the book. He has spent the first six books of the novel attempting to convince Chad to return home to Woollett; now, he will spend the next six trying to convince Chad that he must stay.
Strether’s change of heart has happened gradually, as Europe has had its transformative effect on him and led him to see by contrast just how limiting a life in Woollett, Massachusetts, can be. However, his conviction that Chad must stay is in part based on lies and half-truths from Chad, Bilham, and Mme. de Vionnet. Their “maze of mystic, closed allusions” confuses him about the true nature of Chad’s prospective life in Paris. They allow him to believe (at first) that Chad may marry Jeanne de Vionnet. When he presses the question, Strether finds out that was a false lead, and that Chad’s relationship is with the mother and not the daughter. Still, he allows himself to be convinced that Chad’s relationship with the Countess is a “virtuous attachment.” In his credulity, Strether seems to have forgotten Miss Gostrey’s earlier warnings that Bilham’s loyalty is to Chad, not to Strether, and Chad may not, after all, be as good as he seems.
As surely as he has fallen in love with Paris, Strether falls in love with the enchanting, exotic Mme. de Vionnet. The Countess, a true femme du monde, half French, half English, and married into the aristocracy, embodies the glamour of Europe. She is like the “vast bright Babylon,” the “jewel” of Paris itself, multifaceted and brilliant. As the Countess enters the picture, Miss Gostrey slips away, perhaps guessing how Mme. de Vionnet has already begun to replace her in Strether’s heart. Although he tries to distance himself, Strether finds himself all the more entangled with this beautiful, mysterious lady in need.
Exactly what Mme. de Vionnet means when she asks Strether to “save” her is not spelled out exactly for the reader. The conversations in James’s novel are loaded with subtext, and the reader is left to guess at the messages behind the allusions, the sighs, and the exclamations of “ah, ah, ah” so loaded with meaning. Evidently, however, Mme. de Vionnet is in love with Chad, and will be lost if she loses him. Thus, “saving” her means keeping Chad in Paris. From this point forward, that will be Strether’s goal.