The Ambassadors, Henry James
The Ambassadors
Henry James
19:35 h Novels Lvl 7.74 417.4 mb
The Ambassadors is a 1903 novel by Henry James, originally published as a serial in the North American Review (NAR). The novel is a dark comedy which follows the trip of protagonist Lewis Lambert Strether to Europe to bring the son of his widowed fiancée back to the family business. The novel is written in the third-person narrative from Strether's point of view. Henry James got the idea for The Ambassadors from his friend, novelist William Dean Howells, who while visiting his son in Paris was so impressed with European culture that he wondered if life hadn't passed him by. The theme of liberation from a cramped, almost starved, emotional life into a more generous and gracious existence plays throughout The Ambassadors, yet it is noteworthy that James does not naïvely portray Paris as a faultless paradise for culturally stunted Americans.

The Ambassadors

by
Henry James


The Ambassadors

Volume I

Preface

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.

WholeReader. Empty coverWholeReader. Book is closedWholeReader. FilterWholeReader. Compilation cover