The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors



The Pequod Review:

Throughout his life Henry James was dedicated to his craft, as much or more than any of his peers. His growth as a writer culminated in his late-period masterpieces, none more fully realized than The Ambassadors. The story is simple: a young man from Massachusetts (Chad Newsome) journeys to Europe and has an extended affair with a married Parisian woman, prompting his mother to send an “ambassador” (the middle-aged Lambert Strether) to bring him home. But Strether finds himself just as enchanted by the European culture and people (as well as Newsome himself), and has no interest in returning to America. This prompts the enlistment of further ambassadors to “rescue” Newsome.

The book is funny, at times a bit of a farce, but with real depth as it explores the cultural views of Europeans and Americans, as well as philosophical questions of finding meaning and satisfaction in life. One of the finest moments in the book is when Strether delivers his famous speech to a fellow ex-pat urging him to:

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? This place and these impressions—mild as you may find them to wind a man up so; all my impressions of Chad and of people I've seen at his place—well, have had their abundant message for me, have just dropped that into my mind. I see it now. I haven't done so enough before—and now I'm old; too old at any rate for what I see. Oh, I do see, at least; and more than you'd believe or I can express. It's too late. And 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. Now I hear its faint, receding whistle miles and miles down the line. What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. The affair—I mean the affair of life—couldn't, no doubt, have been different for me; for it's at the best, a tin mould, either fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences, or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one's consciousness is poured—so that one 'takes' the form, as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it: one lives, in fine, as one can. Still, one has the illusion of freedom; therefore don't be, like me, without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it; I don't quite know which. Of course, at present, I'm a case of reaction against the mistake; and the voice of reaction should, no doubt, always be taken with an allowance. But that doesn't affect the point that the right time is now yours. The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have. You've plenty; that's the great thing; you're, as I say, damn you, so happily and hatefully young…. Do what you like so long as you don't make my mistake. For it was a mistake. Live!

Meanwhile, James’s prose has never been better. His sentences are intricate and precise, and rise to the level of great poetry. And his omniscient third-person narrative is told in a way that reveals multiple perspectives and analyzes specific moments in minute detail, showing how much really happens in our day-to-day lives and yet how little we fully perceive.