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.