Chad Newsome of Woolett, Massachusetts, is in Europe, where he has gone for an extended stay. He has become entangled romantically with a Parisian woman. Chad views himself as a freewheeling man-about-town. His mother views his identity in another way. She thinks he should come home, marry well, enter the family business, and become responsible.
To achieve this end, Mrs. Newsome dispatches her ambassador, Lambert Strether, a fifty-five-year-old widower, a writer who is her protégé and fiancé, to Paris to rescue Chad. Strether never liked Chad, but on meeting him in Paris, he is struck by Chad’s improvement. Mme de Vionnet captivates Strether, who assumes that Chad’s interest is in her daughter, who is approximately Chad’s age.
This illusion is shattered when the daughter marries. When Strether meets Chad and Mme de Vionnet, who is separated but not divorced from her husband, in the south of France, it becomes clear that the older woman is Chad’s mistress. Strether begins to feel sympathy for the two, believing that Chad has a moral responsibility to Mme de Vionnet.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Newsome, growing impatient, has dispatched four additional ambassadors to Paris with a mandate to bring Chad home. Among them is Mamie Pocock, whom the Newsomes presume Chad will marry. The arrival of this quartet from Woolett throws into striking contrast the manners and morals of Paris against those of Massachusetts. To Strether, continental identity is far more appealing than Woolett’s. He has been enticed into Chad’s camp simply by observing how living in Paris and having Mme de Vionnet in his life have enhanced Chad’s personality. Chad’s married sister, Sarah, who is among the newly arrived ambassadors, shuns Mme de Vionnet’s attempts to establish a relationship. Sarah considers the changes that have taken place in Chad outrageous.
Under pressure to return home, Chad, still infatuated by Mme de Vionnet, is weak and indecisive, thereby humiliating his mistress. She offers her affection to Strether, who summarily but gently rejects it.
It appears that Chad will do his mother’s bidding and return to the deadening routine of helping run the family business. It is Strether, finally successful as an ambassador, who is forever changed by his ambassadorship. He has experienced two national identities, much as Henry James did early in his life, and is destined to hover between them for the rest of his days.
The Ambassadors is about identity, comparing that of the innocent American and the worldly European. It is also about the identity of the solid family member and the freewheeling individual. Strether, Chad, and Mme de Vionnet suffer and learn as a result of the conflicts that arise between these two groups of identities.
Lambert Strether is engaged to marry Mrs. Newsome, a widow. Mrs. Newsome has a son, Chadwick, called Chad, whom she wants to return home from Paris and take over the family business in Woollett, Massachusetts. She is especially concerned for his future after she hears that he is seriously involved with a Frenchwoman. In her anxiety, she asks Strether to go to Paris and persuade her son to return to the respectable life she planned for him. Strether does not look forward to his task, for Chad ignored all of his mother’s written requests to return home. Strether also does not know what hold Chad’s mistress might have over him or what sort of woman she might be. He strongly suspects that she is a young girl of unsavory reputation. Strether realizes, however, that his hopes of marrying Mrs. Newsome depend upon his success in bringing Chad back to America, where his mother can see him married to Mamie Pocock.
Leaving his ship at Liverpool, Strether journeys across England to London. On the way he meets Miss Gostrey, a young woman who is acquainted with some of Strether’s American...
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