Themes and Meanings
One of the major themes in the novel is that of appearance versus reality. Nothing is as it appears to be on first impression. Stereotypes such as the brash American cowboy or the refined English lady of Tallyho Castle are interrogated and shown to be comfortable prejudices that will eventually be exposed as false. Appearances can also conceal darker psychological realities. The first impressions of Fred as an amiable young lover and of Vinnie as a cultured American academic do not reveal the level of self-involvement that subverts each character’s capacity for true intimacy.
Another important theme in Foreign Affairs is the Jamesian comparison of the European and the American character. Henry James’s astute exploration of the American in Europe, especially the “Europeanized” American, is brought up to date through the characters of Fred and Vinnie. Although nominally American, both are eager to take their places in the upper echelons of a socially stratified English world.
Chuck, on the other hand, is a less calculating American whose core of goodness and sweetness is a breath of fresh air in a more jaded and cynical old world. He also leads Vinnie to see that she is a good woman, as he is, at heart, a good man. Similarly, although the American Fred is callow and selfish, he does in the end maintain moral principles that contrast with the lax morality of the British smart set, whom he comes to see as only temporary friends.
Finally, Lurie exposes the reality of England underneath the expectations of American tourists. As Fred is disillusioned with Rosemary, Vinnie experiences a rude awakening when searching for English children to provide her with nursery rhymes for her next book. Instead of listening to charming ditties, Vinnie must pay to listen to obscene doggerel by an underfed ragamuffin with a dirty face, chipped teeth, and matted, artificially pink hair. In addition to having her illusions about merry England shattered, Vinnie loses her idealized image of childhood as an innocent preserve. This theme of the reality of children is reinforced by the minor character of the American child Jakie, depicted as a disagreeable imp who has deceived his blindly permissive parents as to his true nature.