Europe versus America: A Review of The Ambassadors (1903) by Henry James

WP_20170926_15_06_45_ProAt the center of this novel is a problem James began his literary career writing about. He also lived it out by eventually choosing England (and nearby Europe) over Puritan New England as his place of residence. But the conflict in James between residing in America and residing in Europe was part of a larger one between living under a severe code of moral conduct (the American determination to please God by pursuing success in the secular world, especially by winning in business and commerce) and the more relaxed European desire to open oneself to the vagaries of experience.

The ferocious American will to win is represented in The Ambassadors by Mrs. Newsome, a character who never directly appears in the book.  Lambert Strether, who appears on almost every page, has lived his life so far as a pleasant but experientially underdeveloped American, a fact represented by his engagement to the morally obstinate Mrs. Newsome. Fortunately for him, however, Mrs. Newsome sends him to Europe as her ambassador to her son Chad, charged with bringing him back to America to run the family business. But the more Strether opens himself to his experiences in Europe, especially those of Paris, the more inclined he is to let people develop as they will and to have Chad himself decide his future.

This thwarting of the will of the indomitable Mrs. Newsome is so unforgiveable from her point of view that she sends her daughter on yet another ambassadorial mission, this one to rescue her brother Chad from the supposed corruptions of European life.  My readers must wait to discover what James has to say toward the end of his story about the futures of both Chad and Strether. My own feeling about Strether, at least, is that the ambassador who failed Mrs. Newsome did not fail himself.

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