The Ambassadors
Henry James
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The Ambassadors is a comedy written by Henry James in 1903. The story follows Lewis as he travels to Europe to retrieve his fiancee's son back to be a part of the family business. The story is based on a real-life account of the beauty of life in Europe at the time by a friend of James. The story's central theme is trying to escape a life suffocated by a lack of emotion and freedom.

The Ambassadors

Henry James

The Ambassadors

Volume I


Nothing is more easy than to state the subject of “The Ambassadors,” which first appeared in twelve numbers of The North American Review (1903) and was published as a whole the same year. The situation involved is gathered up betimes, that is in the second chapter of Book Fifth, for the reader’s benefit, into as few words as possible — planted or “sunk,” stiffly and saliently, in the centre of the current, almost perhaps to the obstruction of traffic.

Never can a composition of this sort have sprung straighter from a dropped grain of suggestion, and never can that grain, developed, overgrown and smothered, have yet lurked more in the mass as an independent particle. The whole case, in fine, is in Lambert Strether’s irrepressible outbreak to little Bilham on the Sunday afternoon in Gloriani’s garden, the candour with which he yields, for his young friend’s enlightenment, to the charming admonition of that crisis.

The idea of the tale resides indeed in the very fact that an hour of such unprecedented ease should have been felt by him as a crisis, and he is at pains to express it for us as neatly as we could desire. The remarks to which he thus gives utterance contain the essence of “The Ambassadors,” his fingers close, before he has done, round the stem of the full-blown flower; which, after that fashion, he continues officiously to present to us.

“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’m too old — too old at any rate for what I see. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. Still, we have the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t, like me to-day, be without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it, and now I’m a case of reaction against the mistake. Do what you like so long as you don’t make it. For it was a mistake. Live, live!”

Such is the gist of Strether’s appeal to the impressed youth, whom he likes and whom he desires to befriend; the word “mistake” occurs several times, it will be seen, in the course of his remarks — which gives the measure of the signal warning he feels attached to his case. He has accordingly missed too much, though perhaps after all constitutionally qualified for a better part, and he wakes up to it in conditions that press the spring of a terrible question.

Would there yet perhaps be time for reparation? — reparation, that is, for the injury done his character; for the affront, he is quite ready to say, so stupidly put upon it and in which he has even himself had so clumsy a hand? The answer to which is that he now at all events sees; so that the business of my tale and the march of my action, not to say the precious moral of everything, is just my demonstration of this process of vision.

Nothing can exceed the closeness with which the whole fits again into its germ. That had been given me bodily, as usual, by the spoken word, for I was to take the image over exactly as I happened to have met it.

A friend had repeated to me, with great appreciation, a thing or two said to him by a man of distinction, much his senior, and to which a sense akin to that of Strether’s melancholy eloquence might be imputed — said as chance would have, and so easily might, in Paris, and in a charming old garden attached to a house of art, and on a Sunday afternoon of summer, many persons of great interest being present.

The observation there listened to and gathered up had contained part of the “note” that I was to recognise on the spot as to my purpose — had contained in fact the greater part; the rest was in the place and the time and the scene they sketched: these constituents clustered and combined to give me further support, to give me what I may call the note absolute. There it stands, accordingly, full in the tideway; driven in, with hard taps, like some strong stake for the noose of a cable, the swirl of the current roundabout it.

What amplified the hint to more than the bulk of hints in general was the gift with it of the old Paris garden, for in that token were sealed up values infinitely precious. There was of course the seal to break and each item of the packet to count over and handle and estimate; but somehow, in the light of the hint, all the elements of a situation of the sort most to my taste were there. I could even remember no occasion on which, so confronted, I had found it of a livelier interest to take stock, in this fashion, of suggested wealth.

For I think, verily, that there are degrees of merit in subjects — in spite of the fact that to treat even one of the most ambiguous with due decency we must for the time, for the feverish and prejudiced hour, at least figure its merit and its dignity as possibly absolute.

What it comes to, doubtless, is that even among the supremely good — since with such alone is it one’s theory of one’s honour to be concerned — there is an ideal beauty of goodness the invoked action of which is to raise the artistic faith to its maximum.

Then truly, I hold, one’s theme may be said to shine, and that of “The Ambassadors,” I confess, wore this glow for me from beginning to end. Fortunately thus I am able to estimate this as, frankly, quite the best, “all round,” of all my productions; any failure of that justification would have made such an extreme of complacency publicly fatuous.

I recall then in this connexion no moment of subjective intermittence, never one of those alarms as for a suspected hollow beneath one’s feet, a felt ingratitude in the scheme adopted, under which confidence fails and opportunity seems but to mock.

If the motive of “The Wings of the Dove,” as I have noted, was to worry me at moments by a sealing-up of its face — though without prejudice to its again, of a sudden, fairly grimacing with expression — so in this other business I had absolute conviction and constant clearness to deal with; it had been a frank proposition, the whole bunch of data, installed on my premises like a monotony of fine weather.

(The order of composition, in these things, I may mention, was reversed by the order of publication; the earlier written of the two books having appeared as the later.) Even under the weight of my hero’s years I could feel my postulate firm; even under the strain of the difference between those of Madame de Vionnet and those of Chad Newsome, a difference liable to be denounced as shocking, I could still feel it serene. Nothing resisted, nothing betrayed, I seem to make out, in this full and sound sense of the matter; it shed from any side I could turn it to the same golden glow.

I rejoiced in the promise of a hero so mature, who would give me thereby the more to bite into — since it’s only into thickened motive and accumulated character, I think, that the painter of life bites more than a little. My poor friend should have accumulated character, certainly; or rather would be quite naturally and handsomely possessed of it, in the sense that he would have, and would always have felt he had, imagination galore, and that this yet wouldn’t have wrecked him.

It was immeasurable, the opportunity to “do” a man of imagination, for if there mightn’t be a chance to “bite,” where in the world might it be? This personage of course, so enriched, wouldn’t give me, for his type, imagination in predominance or as his prime faculty, nor should I, in view of other matters, have found that convenient.

So particular a luxury — some occasion, that is, for study of the high gift in supreme command of a case or of a career — would still doubtless come on the day I should be ready to pay for it; and till then might, as from far back, remain hung up well in view and just out of reach. The comparative case meanwhile would serve — it was only on the minor scale that I had treated myself even to comparative cases.

I was to hasten to add however that, happy stopgaps as the minor scale had thus yielded, the instance in hand should enjoy the advantage of the full range of the major; since most immediately to the point was the question of that supplement of situation logically involved in our gentleman’s impulse to deliver himself in the Paris garden on the Sunday afternoon — or if not involved by strict logic then all ideally and enchantingly implied in it.

(I say “ideally,” because I need scarce mention that for development, for expression of its maximum, my glimmering story was, at the earliest stage, to have nipped the thread of connexion with the possibilities of the actual reported speaker. He remains but the happiest of accidents; his actualities, all too definite, precluded any range of possibilities; it had only been his charming office to project upon that wide field of the artist’s vision — which hangs there ever in place like the white sheet suspended for the figures of a child’s magic-lantern — a more fantastic and more moveable shadow.)

No privilege of the teller of tales and the handler of puppets is more delightful, or has more of the suspense and the thrill of a game of difficulty breathlessly played, than just this business of looking for the unseen and the occult, in a scheme half-grasped, by the light or, so to speak, by the clinging scent, of the gage already in hand.

No dreadful old pursuit of the hidden slave with bloodhounds and the rag of association can ever, for “excitement,” I judge, have bettered it at its best.

For the dramatist always, by the very law of his genius, believes not only in a possible right issue from the rightly-conceived tight place; he does much more than this — he believes, irresistibly, in the necessary, the precious “tightness” of the place (whatever the issue) on the strength of any respectable hint. It being thus the respectable hint that I had with such avidity picked up, what would be the story to which it would most inevitably form the centre?

It is part of the charm attendant on such questions that the “story,” with the omens true, as I say, puts on from this stage the authenticity of concrete existence. It then is, essentially — it begins to be, though it may more or less obscurely lurk, so that the point is not in the least what to make of it, but only, very delightfully and very damnably, where to put one’s hand on it.

In which truth resides surely much of the interest of that admirable mixture for salutary application which we know as art. Art deals with what we see, it must first contribute full-handed that ingredient; it plucks its material, otherwise expressed, in the garden of life — which material elsewhere grown is stale and uneatable.

But it has no sooner done this than it has to take account of a process — from which only when it’s the basest of the servants of man, incurring ignominious dismissal with no “character,” does it, and whether under some muddled pretext of morality or on any other, pusillanimously edge away. The process, that of the expression, the literal squeezing-out, of value is another affair — with which the happy luck of mere finding has little to do.

The joys of finding, at this stage, are pretty well over; that quest of the subject as a whole by “matching,” as the ladies say at the shops, the big piece with the snippet, having ended, we assume, with a capture. The subject is found, and if the problem is then transferred to the ground of what to do with it the field opens out for any amount of doing.

This is precisely the infusion that, as I submit, completes the strong mixture. It is on the other hand the part of the business that can least be likened to the chase with horn and hound. It’s all a sedentary part — involves as much ciphering, of sorts, as would merit the highest salary paid to a chief accountant.

Not, however, that the chief accountant hasn’t his gleams of bliss; for the felicity, or at least the equilibrium of the artist’s state dwells less, surely, in the further delightful complications he can smuggle in than in those he succeeds in keeping out. He sows his seed at the risk of too thick a crop; wherefore yet again, like the gentlemen who audit ledgers, he must keep his head at any price.

In consequence of all which, for the interest of the matter, I might seem here to have my choice of narrating my “hunt” for Lambert Strether, of describing the capture of the shadow projected by my friend’s anecdote, or of reporting on the occurrences subsequent to that triumph.

But I had probably best attempt a little to glance in each direction; since it comes to me again and again, over this licentious record, that one’s bag of adventures, conceived or conceivable, has been only half-emptied by the mere telling of one’s story. It depends so on what one means by that equivocal quantity.

There is the story of one’s hero, and then, thanks to the intimate connexion of things, the story of one’s story itself. I blush to confess it, but if one’s a dramatist one’s a dramatist, and the latter imbroglio is liable on occasion to strike me as really the more objective of the two.

The philosophy imputed to him in that beautiful outbreak, the hour there, amid such happy provision, striking for him, would have been then, on behalf of my man of imagination, to be logically and, as the artless craft of comedy has it, “led up” to; the probable course to such a goal, the goal of so conscious a predicament, would have in short to be finely calculated.

Where has he come from and why has he come, what is he doing (as we Anglo-Saxons, and we only, say, in our foredoomed clutch of exotic aids to expression) in that galère? To answer these questions plausibly, to answer them as under cross-examination in the witness-box by counsel for the prosecution, in other words satisfactorily to account for Strether and for his “peculiar tone,” was to possess myself of the entire fabric.

At the same time the clue to its whereabouts would lie in a certain principle of probability: he wouldn’t have indulged in his peculiar tone without a reason; it would take a felt predicament or a false position to give him so ironic an accent. One hadn’t been noting “tones” all one’s life without recognising when one heard it the voice of the false position. The dear man in the Paris garden was then admirably and unmistakeably in one — which was no small point gained; what next accordingly concerned us was the determination of this identity.

One could only go by probabilities, but there was the advantage that the most general of the probabilities were virtual certainties. Possessed of our friend’s nationality, to start with, there was a general probability in his narrower localism; which, for that matter, one had really but to keep under the lens for an hour to see it give up its secrets. He would have issued, our rueful worthy, from the very heart of New England — at the heels of which matter of course a perfect train of secrets tumbled for me into the light.

They had to be sifted and sorted, and I shall not reproduce the detail of that process; but unmistakeably they were all there, and it was but a question, auspiciously, of picking among them. What the “position” would infallibly be, and why, on his hands, it had turned “false” — these inductive steps could only be as rapid as they were distinct.

I accounted for everything — and “everything” had by this time become the most promising quantity — by the view that he had come to Paris in some state of mind which was literally undergoing, as a result of new and unexpected assaults and infusions, a change almost from hour to hour.

He had come with a view that might have been figured by a clear green liquid, say, in a neat glass phial; and the liquid, once poured into the open cup of application, once exposed to the action of another air, had begun to turn from green to red, or whatever, and might, for all he knew, be on its way to purple, to black, to yellow.

At the still wilder extremes represented perhaps, for all he could say to the contrary, by a variability so violent, he would at first, naturally, but have gazed in surprise and alarm; whereby the situation clearly would spring from the play of wildness and the development of extremes.

I saw in a moment that, should this development proceed both with force and logic, my “story” would leave nothing to be desired. There is always, of course, for the story-teller, the irresistible determinant and the incalculable advantage of his interest in the story as such; it is ever, obviously, overwhelmingly, the prime and precious thing (as other than this I have never been able to see it); as to which what makes for it, with whatever headlong energy, may be said to pale before the energy with which it simply makes for itself.

It rejoices, none the less, at its best, to seem to offer itself in a light, to seem to know, and with the very last knowledge, what it’s about — liable as it yet is at moments to be caught by us with its tongue in its cheek and absolutely no warrant but its splendid impudence.

Let us grant then that the impudence is always there — there, so to speak, for grace and effect and allure; there, above all, because the Story is just the spoiled child of art, and because, as we are always disappointed when the pampered don’t “play up,” we like it, to that extent, to look all its character. It probably does so, in truth, even when we most flatter ourselves that we negotiate with it by treaty.

All of which, again, is but to say that the steps, for my fable, placed themselves with a prompt and, as it were, functional assurance — an air quite as of readiness to have dispensed with logic had I been in fact too stupid for my clue. Never, positively, none the less, as the links multiplied, had I felt less stupid than for the determination of poor Strether’s errand and for the apprehension of his issue.

These things continued to fall together, as by the neat action of their own weight and form, even while their commentator scratched his head about them; he easily sees now that they were always well in advance of him. As the case completed itself he had in fact, from a good way behind, to catch up with them, breathless and a little flurried, as he best could.

The false position, for our belated man of the world — belated because he had endeavoured so long to escape being one, and now at last had really to face his doom — the false position for him, I say, was obviously to have presented himself at the gate of that boundless menagerie primed with a moral scheme of the most approved pattern which was yet framed to break down on any approach to vivid facts; that is to any at all liberal appreciation of them.

There would have been of course the case of the Strether prepared, wherever presenting himself, only to judge and to feel meanly; but he would have moved for me, I confess, enveloped in no legend whatever.

The actual man’s note, from the first of our seeing it struck, is the note of discrimination, just as his drama is to become, under stress, the drama of discrimination. It would have been his blest imagination, we have seen, that had already helped him to discriminate; the element that was for so much of the pleasure of my cutting thick, as I have intimated, into his intellectual, into his moral substance. Yet here it was, at the same time, just here, that a shade for a moment fell across the scene.

There was the dreadful little old tradition, one of the platitudes of the human comedy, that people’s moral scheme does break down in Paris; that nothing is more frequently observed; that hundreds of thousands of more or less hypocritical or more or less cynical persons annually visit the place for the sake of the probable catastrophe, and that I came late in the day to work myself up about it. There was in fine the trivial association, one of the vulgarest in the world; but which give me pause no longer, I think, simply because its vulgarity is so advertised.

The revolution performed by Strether under the influence of the most interesting of great cities was to have nothing to do with any bêtise of the imputably “tempted” state; he was to be thrown forward, rather, thrown quite with violence, upon his lifelong trick of intense reflexion: which friendly test indeed was to bring him out, through winding passages, through alternations of darkness and light, very much in Paris, but with the surrounding scene itself a minor matter, a mere symbol for more things than had been dreamt of in the philosophy of Woollett.

Another surrounding scene would have done as well for our show could it have represented a place in which Strether’s errand was likely to lie and his crisis to await him. The likely place had the great merit of sparing me preparations; there would have been too many involved — not at all impossibilities, only rather worrying and delaying difficulties — in positing elsewhere Chad Newsome’s interesting relation, his so interesting complexity of relations.

Strether’s appointed stage, in fine, could be but Chad’s most luckily selected one. The young man had gone in, as they say, for circumjacent charm; and where he would have found it, by the turn of his mind, most “authentic,” was where his earnest friend’s analysis would most find him; as well as where, for that matter, the former’s whole analytic faculty would be led such a wonderful dance.

“The Ambassadors” had been, all conveniently, “arranged for”; its first appearance was from month to month, in the North American Review during 1903, and I had been open from far back to any pleasant provocation for ingenuity that might reside in one’s actively adopting — so as to make it, in its way, a small compositional law — recurrent breaks and resumptions.

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