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...
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