The importance of seizing life (expressed by the Latin poet Horace as carpe diem, or “seize the day”) is a common literary theme, and one that emerges as the primary message of The Ambassadors. Lewis Lambert Strether, returning to Paris in late middle age, is awakened to how much he has missed out on in life. He urges little Bilham, in a climactic moment of the novel, “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?” Later, speaking to the stern, repressed Waymarsh, Strether says: “Let yourself, on the contrary, go—in all agreeable directions. These are precious hours—at our age they mayn’t recur. Don’t have it to say to yourself at Milrose, next winter, that you hadn’t courage for them.” Mme. de Vionnet highly approves of the way that Strether has learned to start “seizing life” in Paris. As she tells Sarah Pocock: “The great thing, Mr. Strether will show you, is just to let one’s self go.”
Things Are Not as They Seem
The Ambassadors contains many instances of things not being as they seem or as people assume them to be. First, Chad’s family assumes that he is living a debased life in Europe, in the clutches of a wicked woman who is “base, venal, of the streets.” Instead, Strether finds, Chad’s female companion is a woman of high breeding, the wife of a nobleman. In fact, Chad is “wonderful”—the perfect gentleman, and his relationship appears to be a virtuous attachment. This, too, is a deceptive appearance, as Strether later finds that Chad and the Countess are lovers. As Miss Barrace puts it in Chapter 10, “in the light of Paris one sees what things resemble,” often overlooking what they truly are.
America versus Europe
James spent most of his life abroad, and many of his novels examine the encounter of America with Europe. 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 Ambassadors examines the reactions of several Americans from New England to European life. Strether, for one, blooms in Paris. He is exhilarated by the high culture, the balconies, the theaters, and the variety of opinions in the people he meets. His friend Waymarsh, on the other hand, can’t seem to adjust, confessing “this ain’t my kind of country.”
The “Good American”
The novel examines what it means to be a “good American.” Miss Gostrey gives the best definition when she is talking about little Bilham. To her, being a good American does not necessarily entail being materially successful or morally distinguished. Instead, it means to possess “the happy attitude itself, the state of faith and—what shall I call it?—the sense of beauty.” She adds that once a person becomes ambitious to achieve something, they destroy what is best in them: “The others have all wanted so dreadfully to do something, and they’ve gone and done it, in too many cases, indeed. It leaves them never the same afterwards; the charm is always somehow broken.” By Miss Gostrey’s definition, which is also James’s, the seemingly failed artist Bilham is a better American than Chad is likely to be after he returns to Woollett to take up the advertising business.
The Ambassadors: Theme Analysis