The International Theme
Implicit to one degree or another in very nearly everything James wrote is the concept of the international contrast: the juxtaposition of cultures and persons embodying characteristics of those cultures. In particular, this contrast takes the form of the study of the American abroad, the American exposed to established Old World values and traditions, the clash of American innocence and inexperience with European maturity and experience. In The Ambassadors, this conflict finds expression in the contrasting worlds of Woollett and Paris, the values represented by the Newsomes and Pococks set against the values of the Parisian society in which Lambert Strether finds himself.
In his "scenario" or project of The Ambassadors, James describes Strether as "of sufficiently typical New England origin" emerging from "the rather provincial, the somewhat contracted world" of Woollett "ridden by his 'New England conscience.'" By the end of the novel, Strether is free of such restrictions; his horizon and outlook are immeasurably expanded. Strether's step-by-step conversion to European values and the cosmopolitan outlook he ultimately achieves serve as the gauge by which the gulf between the two worlds can be defined.
The Theme of the Lived Life
"Live all you can; it's a mistake not to." So Strether advises Little Bilham in a speech not so much meant for the younger man as it is an articulation of Strether's own recently formed attitudes about himself and his life. The "failure to enjoy" is a major theme of The Ambassadors, and Strether's sense that he has not fully lived is the climactic expression of that theme. James remarked that this scene and Strether's outburst to Bilham "contain the essence of The Ambassadors."
In the first chapter of the novel, Maria comments on Strether's inability to enjoy himself, and Strether confesses that he is always preoccupied with something other than "the thing of the moment." Strether prefaces his outburst to Bilham by observing that in Europe, "people can be in general pretty well trusted, of course, — with the clock of their freedom ticking loud as it seems to do here — to keep an eye on the fleeting hour." It has been persuasively argued by R. W. Stallman that clock imagery in The Ambassadors is central to the theme of the lived life: the unclocked world of Europe contrasted with Woollett's clocked morality; the fluidity and unpredictability of life in Paris set off against Woollett's compulsion to live by the clock. When Strether receives Mrs. Newsome's cablegram, for example, he puts it on the windowsill and keeps it from blowing out the window by weighting it down with his watch; Waymarsh, rebelling against the unclocked world of Europe, dashes into a jeweler's to purchase a watch. The clock-motif also solves the Woollett Riddle: the object manufactured in the Newsome factory, unnamed in the novel but, as Strether observes, if named "would be a great commentary on everything." The mysterious product of Woollett must be, in this context, watches or clocks.
Although Strether comes to realize how much of life he has missed and is "too late" to enjoy it actively, he is able at the end of the story to enjoy the idea of what Europe offers, which for a man of Strether's sensibilities may be an acceptable substitute for the actual possession of it.