Five Minute Study Guide | Henry James – The Ambassadors

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.


Five Minute Study Guide | Henry James – Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller was by no measure of comparison Henry James’ bestselling book, doubling the sales of all his other books. James said that he was inspired to write Daisy Miller after overhearing some expatriates talk about how a woman had been “picked up”, in those words, by an Italian man, and had enjoyed a fairly nice relationship before some small conflict caused it all to crumble. Such is the formula of Many of James’ novels, but we can see that even early in his career, he had his mind set on extrapolating the great mysteries of this world through a class of people he knew inside and out.

Daisy Miller is a clash between two classes of American expats, Mrs.Costello and Mrs.Walker. They represent the Old money, the aristocratic upper class who is familiar with European culture in a way that the nouveau riche Daisy Miller can never be. We have to remember that tourism, while having existed before the 19th century, grew in staggering popularity after the industrial revolution. So the older class is at odds with Daisy because they think it’s their duty to be exclusive. But this in turn prompts Daisy to want that life more, as their snobbishness is to her an attractive quality. While in the town of Vevey in Switzerland, she meets Winterbourne, an expatriate who has lived most of his life in Europe, and who in turn belongs to neither the new or old money institutions. They fall for each other right away, but when they agree to meet a few months later in Rome, Winterbourne realises that she has met an Italian man named Gionvanelli, an attractive romantic but suspected fortune-hunter. This type of character, too, will return in such later works as Portrait of a Lady. When in Rome, Mrs.Walker objects to the conventions she subverts, and Winterbourne soon abandons the woman he had once so easily fallen for. Soon after, though, Daisy succumbs to the Roman fever and dies soon after.

Henry James called this story a tragedy but, what Daisy fell victim to was not to swarthy European men. Rather, she was a victim of the strict and at-times unspoken code of manners that the proprietors of Old money were trying to uphold. She is at first purposely excluded, but because of how naive and nice she was, Mrs.Walker and the others had no choice to accept to. To an extent.

This divide between Daisy independently finding love and her being forcefully guided towards rich men is not just a moral qualm unique to the book. Rather, James is comparing the contemporary sentiments of the American family versus the dated ideals of the old rich. This is by no means a groundbreaking feminist work, but it does show how mannerly decorum oppresses young women who want agency. The forces that are supposed to guide women into marriage only repel women who want to be innocent by virtue of honest choices.

But Daisy Miller is interesting for many other reasons. This tale is told in the 3rd person, but primarily follows Winterbourne. This perspective adds another layer of ambiguity to the story, but also suggests that the lense he wears is the lense that  his audience wears. Daisy cannot be defined without being generalized. Even when he ponders about her past, she is either an innocent girl from rural New York or a socialite of the city with all the implications of that position. The problem is she can’t just *be*. So long as she’s subject to this gaze, she is preemptively defined.

James says that Winterbourne “had a pleasant sense that he should never be afraid of Daisy Miller.” But it is only a ‘sense’, a feeling that he won’t act upon. While the consequences of Daisy getting embroiled in the conflict of manners is damaging, it does little good to Winterbourne too. In fact, his hesitation (along with his name I guess) is symbolic of his sterility in the face of these conventions. James does not specify about whether his fear is a product of society or just part of his nature, but it certainly cannot remain when someone just wants to be free from constraints. After all, the original subtitle of DM was “a study”, which just implies that Winterbourne defers his sexual feelings by the act of observation. Therein lies the keystone of this work of fiction — while she fearlessly attempts to reinforce her strong identity, she remains but a character in the eye of the beholder.

The novella is important because it foreshadows the recurring Henry James template. It’s also important because after its publication, Daisy was forever etched into the American literary imagination. This isn’t a stretch. Fitzgerald’s infamous Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby is arguably a revisiting of a character who died to defy the conventional, and if you sympathize with Winterbourne’s unrequited longing for her, I guess you could say she also defied the wishes of the reader as well.