Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Henry James--The Ambassadors (1903)

James’s The Ambassadors bridges the gap between Fin de Siecle literature and modernism.  As a master of Realism in his early work, James reaches toward modernism in his later novels.  The novel presents Paris as Paternian image of a liquid jewel—or some even go so far as to say that it is a Paternian universe, a world tending toward entropy.  In the novel, follows the trip of protagonist, middle-aged Lambert Strether to Europe in pursuit of Chad, his widowed fiancée's supposedly wayward son; he is to bring the young man back to the family business, but he encounters unexpected complications. The third-person narrative is told exclusively from Strether's point of view.
Strether agrees to go to Paris and rescue Chad Newsome, his fiancée’s son, from the clutches of a presumably wicked woman.  Along the way Strether meets Maria Gostrey, an American woman who has lived in Paris for years. Her cynical wit and worldly opinions start to rattle Strether's preconceived view of the situation.  Once Strether meets Chad, he’s impressed by Chad’s sophistication and becomes sympathetic to Chad’s point of view of the situation.  Chad takes him to a garden party, where Strether meets the beautiful Marie de Vionnet and Jeanne, her daughter. Strether has trouble determining whether Chad is more attracted to the mother or the daughter.  Strether finds himself attracted to Marie de Vionnet, despite his engagement to Chad’s mother.
Strether then confides in Chad’s friend Little Bilhan that he feels he may have missed his life somehow, and begins to relish his time in Paris.  His enjoyment is cut short by new “ambassadors,” which include Sarah Pocock, Chad's sister, who dismisses Strether's impression that Chad has improved, condemns Marie as an indecent woman, and demands that Chad immediately return to the family business in America.  In his confusion, Strether takes a trip to the French countryside where he encounters Chad and Marie and realizes the extent of their romance.  After returning to Paris, he counsels Chad not to leave Marie; but Strether finds he is now uncomfortable in Europe. In the event, he declines Maria Gostrey's virtual marriage proposal and returns to America.
In the novel, all of Strether’s encounters are mediated in some way, if only through the “eternal nippers” he wears (27).  As Strether struggles to make sense of his new surroundings and encounters, he is privy to new sights and ideas; however, his Woollet background often prevents him from grasping their meanings.  Even the most perspicacious of characters sees the same scenes differently from each other, depending on their respective positions and the prejudices which block their view.  When Strether looks through the Woollett party’s shuttered window and sees “the Tuileries garden and what was beyond it...visible through the gaps” (298), this obstructed view is emblematic of the idea of blocked vision which permeates the novel.
Strether most often relies upon Marie Gostrey to help him sort out what he has seen.  Like Strether, with his “perpetual pair of glasses astride” his nose (24), Miss Gostrey also uses an “aid[] to sight” (26), which shows that she, too, is interested new views and viewpoints.  However, Miss Gostrey is much more perceptive than Strether; he even admits that “she knew things he didn't” (27).  While Strether is often confused by people, Miss Gostrey, the “mistress of a hundred cases or categories,” is particularly adept at interpreting others (26).  Strether's Woollett background often occludes his vision of reality; he is reliant upon his conversations with Miss Gostrey to provide some of the metaphorical gaps through which he can begin to grasp the true nature of events.
Over the course of the novel, Strether also comes to rely upon the viewpoint of Madame de Vionnet to supplement his knowledge, especially that which pertains to his mission to “save” Chad Newsome.  As they both have vested interests in the success of this venture, it is important to them that they are able to compare impressions.  Often, though, Madame de Vionnet, like Miss Gostrey, sees more than Strether does.  For example, when they both examine Madame de Vionnet's furnishings, “she seemed to see gaps he didn't” (319).  Here again, the novel shows that there are both obstructions to sight, as well as gaps to be seen through.
While Miss Gostrey and Madame Vionnet both signify new vistas for Strether, the obstructions in his vision are also represented by a woman: the formidable Mrs. Newsome.  She represents the Woollett values and strictures which keep Strether from fully living, a regret against which he warns Little Bilham: “it’s as if the train had fairly waited at the station for me without my having had the gumption to know it was there” (176).  Mrs. Newsome is such a heavy presence in Strether’s life that even the sight of her handwriting holds a “queer power” over him (332).  It is on her behalf that he is on his current mission in Paris, to bring back her errant son.  And, it is notable that it is from her family’s apartment that the emblematic description is made: the room for which she has financially provided both provides the access and obstructions to the view of Parisian gardens. 
The observant Miss Gostrey remarks that Strether “owe[s] more to women than any man I ever saw” (326).  It is true that much of Strether’s experiences are made possible and mediated by women, whether his understanding of the sophisticated Parisians or concerned Americans, his position as editor of the green-covered Review, or his exposure to Paris itself.  Strether’s challenge for himself is to learn to distinguish the obstructions from the gaps.  Had he never come to Paris, Strether might never have been aware of the skewed vision which Mrs. Newsome’s Woollett has given him.  In Paris, though his view is still obstructed, he can at least see the Tuileries.

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