The Ambassadors, the first-written but second-published of James’s final trilogy, resurrects his early preoccupation with the effect of European travel on Americans. James’s handling of the theme here, however, is infinitely richer and more nuanced than in his earlier fiction. Above all, the ambiguous relationship between aesthetic sensibility and conventional moral values is rendered with consummate skill.
Lambert Strether, a middle-aged bachelor from Woolett, Massachusetts, has been sent to Paris to bring home the son of the woman he is planning to marry, Mrs. Newsome. Strether, who has not been abroad for many years, discovers that Chad Newsome is amorously involved with a Frenchwoman, though Strether mistakenly believes at first that Chad’s love interest is the young Jeanne. Charmed by the manner in which Chad has matured during his time in Paris, Strether delays to the point that the Newsomes themselves (absent the mother) appear on the scene to take matters in hand. Strether is in a difficult position, as his material well-being depends significantly on Mrs. Newsome’s good will.
While on a solitary excursion into the French countryside, Strether fortuitously encounters Chad in a romantic interlude with his lover, who turns out to be the middle-aged Marie de Vionnet, Jeanne’s mother. Shocked, but finally persuaded that the principles by which he has lived have deprived him of a fulfilling life, Strether decides to...
(The entire section is 477 words.)