When Henry james called The Ambassadors his personal favourite of his many novels, it made a lot of sense. Just like Daisy Miller, or Portrait of a Lady, it did not sway from the Jamesian formula of expatriating an American to Europe to confront their identity, and I guess in the grander scheme of things, their own purpose in life. Unlike many of his other works during that time, The Ambassadors is in fact comedic, subtly ironic and written in a surprisingly realist style. Many of the novels he released in the 20th century were in fact more experimental, but this one was a reversion to the more personal themes of his literature. Just like Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady, this novel is about somebody dealing with destiny, but while she affronts it, to use James’ term, the protagonist Henry Strether reviews his life, and spends the bulk of the novel wondering whether he had missed out on something better.
The Ambassadors is about a middle-aged American whose fiancee seeks help to rescue her son from the wickedness of a European woman. The word ‘ambassador’ is ironic — to his fiancee, Europe represents disagreeable morality, so he must represent her interests, and in turn the interests of America. However, when he falls in love with Paris and begins wondering about his “wasted life”, then he becomes marooned, so to speak, between two places he cannot fully be attached to.
The bulk of the novel concerns the relationship between the fiancee’s son Chad and his patroness and lover, the Madame de Vionnet. Without knowing about the intimate relations between the two, Strether falls in love with the ideal Vionnet, and soon burns bridges with his fiancee. Others come from America to try and get Chad to come back, but it only sparks more relationships, notably one between Strether’s friend Bilham and the young New Englander Mamie. However, in the end Strether will have burned all his bridges and will end up practically alone, but not without having been woken up to the romantic ideals of Paris, Switzerland and other European haunts. This permanently instills in him a sense of longing he can’t get rid of. As “ambassador” or “tourist”, he is doomed to a life of separation and distance from others.
It’s always difficult to critically approach a Henry James novel, simply because there is so much to go over. I think one question we can ask is why Henry James remains a heavyweight in American literature, especially considering its European content. The reader has to understand that the “American” was still a relatively new concept, and one that was almost contradictory. Were Americans the descendents of puritans or the descendents of enterprising individualists? Or were they still searching for a concrete identity? Strether is a difficult character to bundle into either a European or American mindset, simply because he defies them. He is an idealist with no conviction, an individual without a following, a man of wealth without influence. That too makes him an ambassador. This symbolic position is perhaps the big conflict of the novel. When will the gradually-aging Strether find his place?
Just like Portrait of a Lady, the answer lies in his defiance of everybody. After gaining considerable pathos throughout the novel, there is a certain bittersweetness about his rejection of both American and European influences. Without jumping to any crazy conclusions, I think that this foresees the disillusionment of the next literary generation, who feel that they can’t adhere to any national ideals, and essentially feel lost. Ironically, the one American ideal he does retain is his quiet puritanism, which ultimately separates him from society, but also grants him personal fortitude.
I think that this is one of Henry James’ more mature novels, not in the sense that his others are immature, but that the principal character is dealing with more personal and spiritual themes, including his own mortality. Like Portrait of a Lady, this is a novel about dealing with destiny or perhaps the illusion thereof. The Ambassadors is a masterpiece of realism when the Jamesian style was slowly losing clout amongst 20th century innovators. That’s not to say this novel does contain innovation. What James began with Isabel Archer he continues here. This novel is a journey through Europe and a journey through the mind — it’s third person, but we can’t quite escape Strether’s consciousness. We are bound to it and bound to suffer through his doubts and toils.
All in all, I think that novels like The Ambassadors foresee the great albeit terrifying journey through the psyche that we call the 20th century. James, at least, recognizes that there is a danger in being an ambassador and not a resident to the small mental domain in which we all individually inhabit.