Read an Excerpt
From Kyle Patrick Smith’s Introduction to The Ambassadors
As for the terms of success, rather than correlating it with esteem or wealth, as James had done early in his career, he began, in a new frame of mind after the failure of Guy Domville, to associate it with frustrated ambitions. This viewpoint forms the hallmark of the proudly abysmal players of The Ambassadors. Maria Gostrey tells Strether when she first meets him, “‘Thank goodness you’re a failure—it’s why I so distinguish you! Anything else to-day is too hideous. Look about you—look at the successes. Would you be one, on your honour?’” “‘The superiority you discern in me,’” she continues, “‘announces my futility. If you knew,’ she sighed, ‘the dreams of my youth!’” Gostrey and Strether have failed, in her eyes, precisely because they do not follow common dictates, nor are they pleasing to common people. This sort of failure marks a superiority to the rank and file, and James had come to see his own commercial futility in the same way.
Just as Gostrey and the members of the Paris set keep their distance from those who find fault with them—they seek refuge at the home of the sculptor Gloriani, where “fewer bores were to be met than elsewhere”—James turned his back on the public in a number of ways in the years preceding the composition of The Ambassadors. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, as he prepared for and composed the novel, James quit the theater; he deserted London and its teeming masses for the rural, secluded Rye House, where he spent the rest of his life; and he abandoned his relatively lucid way of writing for an increasingly meandering, deferential, and obtuse manner of composition that has confounded generations of readers. The change in prose style, in fact, forms the main characterization of the three novels of James’s “major phase,” of which The Ambassadors was the first written and the second published. If readers had any trouble comprehending or remaining interested in the early works of James, he demonstrated, with his sudden change to a slower and even more difficult prose style, that he no longer cared.
James detached himself from public opinion over the course of many years. Similarly, Strether, who has spent his entire life seeking community approval, does not understand initially how Gostrey can live a life so disconnected from conventional mores; he reflects on how their initial encounter “struck him as requiring so many explanations.” It is precisely this slow adoption of the values of the Paris set that forms the substance of The Ambassadors. A number of small stimuli effect Strether’s change, but the influence of Chad’s friend Bilham, whom Strether meets shortly after encountering Maria Gostrey, goes a long way in seducing him toward his new outlook. Through spending time with the young man, Strether perceives that one can make a life out of doing nothing at all, observing, “Little Bilham had an occupation, but it was only an occupation declined.” Bilham had once been a student of painting, “but study had been fatal to him so far as anything could be fatal, and his productive power faltered in proportion as his knowledge grew.” Strether comes to see, as James did, that “productive power” for the commercial market comes at the expense of a higher calling—in Bilham’s case, knowledge, and, for the rest of the Paris set, living with a rich and satisfying appreciation of the mysteries of life: the subtlety, beauty, and irony in everyday existence. The Ambassadors defends unemployment as vigorously as it defends the single life.
Having known all too well the consequences of ignoring convention, James demonstrates what Gostrey and Bilham lose by deserting traditional expectations. Strether sees Bilham’s life as a “shipwreck,” from which nothing has been retained save “his beautiful intelligence and his confirmed habit of Paris.” Similarly, Strether sees how Maria Gostrey’s abstensions from both regular work and marriage have affected where she must live, observing, “Her compact and crowded little chambers, almost dusky, as they at first struck him, with accumulations, represented a supreme general adjustment to opportunities and conditions.” No character in the novel, however, doubts that Bilham and Gostrey have made the correct decisions. Despite the shipwreck, Bilham lives, as Strether notices, completely exempt from “alarm, anxiety or remorse” and possesses an “amazing serenity.” And Gostrey would accept nothing less than her abysmal state. Was it after all a joke that he should be serious about anything? He envied Miss Barrace at any rate her power of not being. She seemed, with little cries and protests and quick recognitions, movements like the darts of some fine high-feathered free-pecking bird, to stand before life as before some full shop-window. You could fairly hear, as she selected and pointed, the tap of her tortoise-shell against the glass.
But how did they achieve this poise? Strether does not have it. Frightened as he realizes that he will fail in bringing Chad home and thus lose the security of marrying Mrs. Newsome, Strether despairs that his buoyant friends do not share his sober outlook. During a conversation with Bilham’s female counterpart, Miss Barrace, he despairs at the light-heartedness of his Paris companions:
Was it after all a joke that he should be serious about anything? He envied Miss Barrace at any rate her power of not being. She seemed, with little cries and protests and quick recognitions, movements like the darts of some fine high-feathered free-pecking bird, to stand before life as before some full shop-window. You could fairly hear, as she selected and pointed, the tap of her tortoise-shell against the glass.
The sublime Miss Barrace stands utterly detached from even her own life, to the extent that Strether imagines a glass window separating her consciousness from her actual existence in the world. Delaying for a moment the question of how the Paris group achieves serenity in the face of privation, it is important to note that Strether connects Miss Barrace’s disengaged attitude with “quick recognitions” and, more specifically, the act of seeing. He tells Bilham and Miss Barrace a few pages later, in the same vein, “‘You’ve all of you here so much visual sense that you’ve somehow all “run” to it. There are moments when it strikes one that you haven’t any other.’” Bilham clarifies Strether’s thought, remarking that the Paris set lacks a “moral” awareness, which, of course, Mrs. Newsome and her daughter Sarah possess in spades.