Late in his career, James returned to a theme that interested him a great deal in the years of his literary apprenticeship. The Ambassadors is the second of James's three final novels, often grouped together because of their common themes and similar techniques. Each considers the differences between the American and European characters at great length. Like most cultural commentators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, James was obsessed with the type—the set of traits that describe, in general, what a person of a particular class, nationality, or ethnic background would be like. While his characters have distinctive personalities James takes pains to describe in fine detail, they also conform, for the most part, to the norms of their type. Strether is every inch a puritanical old codger from New England; the tragedy of the novel derives, in part, from his failure to break out of the expectations of this type. By the same token, Mrs. de Vionnet and her daughter fit quite well into the mold of the European character. When these characters come in contact with Strether and, more dramatically, with his fiancee's daughter, a significant clash of values comes to underscore the cultural difference between the old world and the new.
Somewhat parallel to this thematic concern is James's interest in age and youth. Characters come in pairs: the young Chad and the aged Strether, young Miss de Vionnet and her mother, Mrs. Newsome and her...
Strether runs a gauntlet of disillusioning circumstances on his journey to wakefulness and clear sight. Strether realizes that “to be right” he must see things as they are. Right things are seen and understood clearly. “The wrong . . . was the obscure.” In Woollett, this means seeing things according to Mrs. Newsome’s definitions. Strether’s actual experiences force him to disavow Mrs. Newsome’s theories while maintaining the definitions of right and wrong. That means sacrificing all preconceived notions derived from books, paintings, nostalgia, or the theories of his betrothed. It also means solitude. Strether gains the brand of traitor when he tries to share his knowledge. The disillusionment with the narrow-mindedness of Woollett was bound to happen. In the end, events also destroy Strether’s belief in perfection.
This last ideal will vanish during an attempt to enjoy views of France made famous by the Impressionists. From a train station, Strether walks through a series of studio-perfect landscapes. His nature viewing reaches a crescendo when he takes a seat by a river. “A boat advancing around the bend” that contains a man rowing a woman with a “pink parasol” caps the experience. What a perfect sight! In a moment, recognition ruins the experience. Although he had felt assured that he could count on Madame de Vionnet and Chad to maintain their perfection as platonic lovers with good judgment, they are the ones he sees on the river “in a boat of their own,” having a regular, romantic affair. That “their country could happen to be exactly his” adds to Strether’s feelings of disillusionment.
The fear of “going native,” or of watching someone else do this, reached nearly neurotic proportions in the heady days of the New Imperialism. With racist undercurrents supported by new theories of eugenics (the study of improving hereditary qualities); Europeans regarded nonwhite ethnicity as horrible, and any white person who adopted nonwhite ways was condemned in polite circles. Indeed, the duty of the European was to “civilize” the nonwhite—usually through a conversion to Christianity and white household habits. A corollary to this was the old tension between the English and French. These two nations had been warring over colonial possessions for a long time. Part of their sparring included the English, for example, loathing of French manners and customs. In fact, the English viewed a man who adopted French ways as effeminate.
The Americans inherited this loathing for French ways, and as they fabricated an American identity, they included French mannerisms in their “don’t” book. In The Ambassadors, however, Americans eventually succumbed to French ways and feel better for doing so. Waymarsh and the Pococks keep themselves from becoming French, but Chad, Bilham, and Strether have been converted. Bilham suggests the process was more thorough than conversion. “They’ve simply—the...