Lewis Lambert Strether

Henry James

I’m still dwelling on this unforgettable character from The Ambassadors. Some have called this novel by Henry James one of the greatest American novels.

The novel is set in Paris, with a few first days in London. But Strether is from Woollett, Massachusetts. It’s a New World, and Old World Novel. Much has been said about this titanic classic. For example, that it focuses ad nausea in a few months of the lives of Strether and company, people free from any other employment but going to the theater, to lunch, to parties, or taking strolls. That was James’s world. He chose to write about what he knew.

The content thus, is the turn of the XX century world as experienced by a north-american who goes to Paris. Everything is normal up to then, right? But what’s new it’s not the content, -realist-, but the way James chooses to tell us the story. Unlike XIX novels, where authors agree on narrating what they see out there, -each according to his or her own style-, James will tell us what’s out there, and what’s inside Strether’s head.

That’s what makes the book difficult. It is, and it isn’t. When we talk about what’s in our head, it’s not easy to relate it all with clarity, since much is felt and more is lost at the moment. Only when time passes, or we come back to events and conversations, we may gain new insight.

Many different interpretations of Strether can be made, the same as different people may talk about someone they know, and be right, -there’s not really a right and a wrong way of describing a person. We can make false statements, our perceptions or analysis of people or characters may seem more interesting, or speak to a lot of people or to non, but we all would have different and same impressions that can even vary within time, or as we read and listen to those of others.

Many say that Strether found himself, his true self, in Paris. The way I see it is like this. To me, Strether lived a conformist life at home in America, where he did what was expected, but where he did not invest himself in his decisions. We are told he had a wife who died in childbirth, and his son, feeble as he was, and left by Strether in a boarding school, died young.

At the beginning of the book, we found Strether on a mission. Mrs. Newsome, owner of a prosperous business, and Strether’s fiancee, sends him to Paris to convince her son Chad to come back home and take over the family business too, as it’s his obligation in her eyes.

When Strether was in Paris, free from the constrains of home, he looks at life, -this is my perception- with fresh eyes for the first time. There’s certain charm, a care free feeling, interesting people who live without any particular morality, but who seem to move by love, with an appreciation for art, music, and the pleasures of life unknown in corseted puritan New England.

My opinion also, is that in the end, Paris loses its charm. To me, Strether becomes painfully aware that he’s now a stranger to both worlds. He doesn’t fit the disciplined and highly moral ways of Woollett, -with all the securities and commodities that abandoning certain freedom affords-, but I don’t think he’s convinced to become a bohemian or existentialist roaming the streets of Paris, with total disregard to who he is, an American representative of some position and heritage.

What saddened me the most, it was to see Strether being taken advantage of, and cheated, only for those who did that to realize how much they all loved good old Strether, and to acknowledge that once you’ve creased a paper, you can’t restore it to its crisp state.

As everyone is uncovered in their murky intentions, Strether appears more clear to the reader. That doesn’t mean we’ll ever understand him, but we are not extorted to understand him, I only felt compelled to listen to him, and in many instances I felt giddy with him, optimistic, hurt, disappointed, happy, and much more.

His commission never got fulfilled in the way Mrs. Newsome envisioned. That would have been impossible. Strether is candid, and he ends up tainted by the less platonic and more vulgar desires that move those around him. The Strether in Paris thinks autonomously, and for the first time, sees Mrs. Newsome from the distance, and gives her credit for being who she is, and doing what she does. By becoming more himself, he’s finally able to see others how they are.

But, again, that awareness brings profound sadness, most specially to those who didn’t take the time or interest to know him well, and who took him for granted. Strether was the needed catalyst for Chad to affirm his new persona, for Woollett’s people to assert the New World ways in Paris, -for all who wondered how they were, we get Sarah, her husband, and Mamie. Mrs. Newsome is also revealed, despite of never showing up or talking. We got to see both groups of people, how they are, how they act, with their common traits, and their different approaches. And then, there’s Strether, waving his flag on a small island in the middle of the ocean.

Many say it’s sad to have Strether come back to Woollett, but that it couldn’t be any other way. It’s clear there was no way this would end with him marrying Maria Gostrey. Paris was what encouraged Strether to find who he was. But he’s from Woollett. He’s not going back to that advantageous marriage with Mrs. Newsome, or to a secure financial life. But he’s going back home.

The other greatly commented line, is that of “live all you can”, that Strether tells John Little Bilham. I think Strether is late in this realization that one must put some thought into life and not live in autopilot. Strether has been dead in a way. I’m glad things go well for the young man and Mamie. At least, there’s some happiness in the story, a bit of a happy ending.

Lastly, it was tender to see how Strether thought about others, wanted others to enjoy certain measure of peace and happiness. He’s the one who takes the reverses of life with a more resigned attitude. It’s the lie what breaks his heart. The lack of honor. If you are going to live an unconventional life, a morally dubious life, at the very least, be loyal in questions of love. And still, it doesn’t look to me that Strether holds grudges, even though he feels the pain Chad has inflicted in him with his laisser-faire attitudes in life, or Mrs. Newsome and Sarah’s with their inexorable judgment of others.

If you’ve met Strether, let me know if my thoughts are off mark, and please share what you think about him and the others in this fascinating book.

6 thoughts on “Lewis Lambert Strether

  1. Great review as usual Silvia.

    I’ve not read this yet, but I am currently reading The Wings of the Dove by James and finding it slow going. As you said, “When we talk about what’s in our head, it’s not easy to relate it all with clarity, since much is felt and more is lost at the moment.”

    I find that I don’t always understand each sentence but I generally do understand the paragraph and what James is trying to say. Does that make sense? This totally slows down my reading, however, since I read every sentence at least twice it seems (if not three or four times).

    I read Daisy Miller, a novella, earlier this year and found it much easier to read. I think James’ style must have gotten more complex in his later career.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s what they say, The Ambassadors, the one you are reading and a third one, were all from his later more difficult period.

      I too understood the paragraph more than the sentence, like an impressionistic painting it’s more clear from the distance.

      I won’t tell you how to read it, but I resisted the urge to reread sentences and I tried to advance more.

      I also read about the book while reading it. I didn’t mind knowing, that gave me some reference when tackling the long flowing sentences that gave me impressions more than certainties.

      Like

  2. Silvia: I’ve been saving your post as a little treat for myself, and, also, I wanted to check Leon Edel’s great James biography (which has great discussions of all of James novels) because it’s been quite awhile since I read The Ambassadors. I discovered, alas, that my copy of Edel was gone (it was paperback and so old it was falling apart so I ditched it. There’s a newerJames biography by Sheldon Novick but its discussion of the novels isn’t nearly as good as Edel’s). Anyway, I think your interpretation of Strether was spot on! As I recall, he’s (as you say) a guy from Woollett, MA who’s led this very conventional life and who, quite late in the day, goes to Paris and realizes what he’s missed, i.e., life. He can’t go back and relive his life, his choices are made and can’t be undone, but he has this one brief moment when he realizes what it is to really live. And, as you point out, he’ll never marry Maria Gosprey and stay in Paris because, after all, he’s a guy from Woollett, a place that has formed his character and shaped his choices. And – -in this great moment of self knowledge, Strether realizes all this. He’s such a wonderful character because his self-realization, his realization of all that he’s missed and will now never experience enriches him, makes him generous and humane rather than bitter. Hence his advice to “live all you can.” I totally agree with you that Strether’s experience in Paris increases his understanding of humanity but knowledge comes at a cost — as you point out, he’s essentially left on his own little island, marooned between two competing visions of life. Tragic in one sense but not in another — Strether no longer fits that smug little puritanical New England world but he’s a better man because he doesn’t. Anyway, that’s how I see it! This is such a great novel; I’m in awe that it’s your first Henry James, as it took me several years and at least three attempts before I managed it.
    On a slightly different subject, I was intrigued by Ruthiella’s comment regarding Wings of the Dove. Talk about a difficult read! Dove is up there with Moby Dick!!! The first time I read it I spent months slogging away through those labyrinthine sentences, double negatives and subtle innuendos with limited success; I found the whole experience incredibly frustrating at times. James’ sentences are so complex and his meanings are so unclear; most of the time I found myself wondering just WHAT the heck was going on! I think I read somewhere that in Dove James set out to tell an extremely melodramatic story in a totally non-melodramatic way; if so, he certainly succeeded! I think your advice was very good — don’t try to tease out every sentence, just read! The Golden Bowl, the third in James’ late and very great trifecta is a similarly difficult but also very rewarding. James’ style definitely evolved as he aged; his earlier work (Daisy Miller; Portrait of a Lady; Washington Square) is pretty straightforward while his later novels are much more stylistically complex (by that point he was actually dictating rather than writing, which may explain his sentence length!).
    Anyway, my apologies for this babble but — you got me going with your character analysis of Strether! He’s truly one of literature’s great creations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apologies? My heartfelt thanks for your generous comment. I myself was anticipating it, and hoping to get your thoughts on my view of Strether.

      I do wish you, Ruthiella, and all the other bloggers who love reading, could meet over coffee and talk at length about HJ, Mobydick, and other authors. I also would love to hear all you are learning about that Spanish painter. (From the other comment, I’m hoping your Madrid visit plan comes to fruition. When you mentioned it, I linked it to the painter Sofisnisba Anguissola. I also know nothing about the other one featured, Lavinia Fontana. I do want you to make this a reality so much. But I know it’s not easy!

      We must get our hands on a copy of the Edel’s bio. It bothers me to read a different one knowing that it’s inferior, 🙂

      Yes!!! Strether’s unique “coming of age” is positive no matter it’s not a happy ever after. Happy ever after belongs in fairy tale, which The Ambassadors is not. I too agree that Strether is a new man in the end. His advice to John Little Bilham is priceless. But no matter how impossible changing one’s life is, knowing what it could have been, and what you don’t want it to be anymore, it’s a profound change, and personal growth.

      My admiration for Strether hinges in his transparent soul. He’s not a hypocrite. And both New and Old World were hypocritical, judgmental, and/or fake. It felt that only Strether was the person who was trying to see who others were, and who did not intend to get something from anyone. When he wanted to influence Chad, it was always sincerely, and when he couldn’t believe in his proposal to return in the initial conditions, -submitting to his mom-, he also was upfront with him and confessed he was not capable of asking that of him anymore. Strether is not asking others to do that which he wouldn’t do himself. I definitely plan to read the other two of his trifecta, -what a fabulous word!- And I must add that there were some instances where I too had no clue what all those words put together meant. I also noticed that HJ managed to do something I haven’t experienced before. He managed to not say something as when Strether didn’t want to say something, or ‘hear’ something from Chad or Madame de Vionnet in particular. As if he’s trying to cover his ears, or trying to ask them with his words to retreat and abandon the conversation.

      His lack of clarity invites our speculation, or show us the pain and doubt Strether had. I also loved the part where he experienced that French landscape painting. It’s a book that manages lots of emotions in the reader, many which come after we close it.

      Moby Dick might be what Ambassadors was to you, LOL. I’ll try a second time, -maybe a third if needed-, and see if I can finish it. It’s another of those books worth the effort. This is so strange. With Moby Dick, there was a moment I’ve only had with Don Quixote, and not always when I’ve read it. As I was reading some paragraphs of Moby Dick, I felt a surge of beauty, an overwhelming feeling of joy and appreciation, similar to what some poems of old, connected to my childhood, provoke in me. It was nothing specific, but one of those descriptions that were apart from the plot, I don’t know, I must go back and see if I found that there again or if it was just a crazy hallucination, LOL.

      Thanks for your comments, they are always generous and lovely to read.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Silvia: I think you’ve really summed up The Ambassadors, at least as much as I understand it! (It really took me a long time to get so far with this book and I had help from Edel!). My own comments may not have been fair to the Novick biography (there are lots of reviews you can check out if you’re interested in reading it). I think Novick’s aim was a little different from Edel’s; the latter was doing a literary biography, integrating an analysis of James’ work into an account of his life, whilst Novick is more interested in strict biography. Novick is also interested in how James’ sexuality (it’s widely assumed by most scholars James was gay; there has been a debate over the extent to which James was also celibate) affected his outlook and work. I think so, anyway; I read all this stuff many years ago! Since I’ve read Edel and have never actually sat down with Novick’s biography at any length, I prefer Edel!
    I love the other two books in the trifecta but I found them very tough going. I actually thought about a re-read of Wings of the Dove for the classics challenge but decided I just wasn’t up for it. I admire Ruthiiella enormously and can’t wait to read her thoughts about the book. BTW James was very sensitive to painting — there’s an important passage in Dove where he compares Milly Theale, a main character, to a portrait by Bronzino. At the time, I didn’t know who Bronzino was, so I had a nice little research project (I like his painting a lot and included a portrait meeting James’ description in a short paper I wrote last fall in a Renaissance art class! Nothing is wasted!) I think James was also friends with John Singer Sargent and other visual artists.
    I too would love a literary chat around a nice cup of coffee (or tea. Tea pots are SO ornamental!) combined with a discussion of all things literary ….. it’s not easy IMO to find readers who are interested in these particular writers!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Got you. One bio is HJ the writer, the other is more HJ the man.

    I love biographies of admired writers, they add to our experience and understanding.

    I don’t know Bronzino, and John Singer Sargent is a favorite of mine. The amazing curriculum I followed to homeschool the girls, was rich in music, art, etc, and it encouraged painter studies which were looking at a painter’s paintings every week, and describing them, etc. It was my true education as an adult! It all helped me see how everything is connected, the arts, even the sciences, it all connects to the times and worldview.

    Liked by 1 person

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