Lambert Strether, an American widower of fifty-five, arrives at his hotel in Chester, England, where he is to meet his old friend, Waymarsh. Strether, a "lean . . . slightly loose figure of a man" with glasses, full but graying hair, and a thick, dark moustache "of characteristically American cut," is somewhat relieved at finding his friend has not yet arrived: "there was little fear that . . . they shouldn't see enough of each other." Inquiring at the desk about Waymarsh, he is overheard by a woman who strikes up a conversation with him, saying that she is acquainted with Waymarsh. They talk, "having accepted each other with an absence of preliminaries," and she quickly puts Strether at ease.
As they stroll in the garden of the hotel, Strether feels himself launched in something "quite disconnected from the sense of his past." The woman's name is Maria Gostrey; she is thirty-five, her features "not freshly young, not markedly fine, but on happy terms with each other." She appears, however, "marked and wan" like Strether himself. Maria, an American living in Paris, describes herself as a "companion at large" for traveling Americans, something she does not for money but because "it has come to me. It has been my fate."
As they continue their walk into the streets of the old city, Maria catches Strether looking at his watch and tells him, "You're doing something that you think not right. . . . You're not enjoying it." Strether confesses that he can never enjoy the present without preoccupation: "I'm always considering something else; something else, I mean, than the thing of the moment." Maria offers to take him in hand, to serve as his guide and confidante. Strether indicates his willingness, and they walk back to the hotel arm in arm. As they approach the hotel, Strether and Maria see that in the doorway, awaiting their return, is Waymarsh.
Strether's relief on finding Waymarsh not yet at the hotel tells us something of their opposite natures, Notice that Waymarsh is also characterized as "dyspeptic" and "joyless."
Maria and Strether's conversation about "the failure to enjoy" introduces one of the major themes of the novel; it will be developed considerably as the narrative progresses. Strether's great sense of "personal freedom" on his arrival in Europe, for example, will be intensified during the course of his experiences in the "Old World." Notice that even at this early point, Strether's values have begun to change. Maria laughs at the thought of the woman in the hotel office who has seen them "thus scrape acquaintance," but Strether is a shade alarmed at this idea. Aware of what Woollett's view of the matter would be, he decides that if their casual introduction and planned excursion are "wrong . . . he had better not have come out at all." And so he goes off to see the town with her.
James' style is often troublesome to the reader approaching his works for the first time. An awareness of some of his techniques and the way they function in his style is helpful. One such technique is the use of point of view, by which James tells the story through the angle of vision of one of his characters; this enables the reader to identify closely with the character yet know only as much as he happens to know at any given time: The Ambassadors is essentially the record of Strether's inner life, his thoughts and responses, and his changing attitudes. Another technique involves James' character descriptions: Characters very often reveal themselves by the way in which they describe other characters. Notice particularly in this chapter how this operates in relation to Strether. Finally, James' sentence structure may at first seem unnecessarily complex, but careful reading will reveal its precision; the last paragraph of this chapter contains several good examples.
The first chapter lays the foundation for later meetings between Strether and Maria (who will serve as his confidante) in London and Paris, in which Strether discusses his problems and analyzes the complications of his situation.
Strether's full name is Lewis Lambert Strether, which, as Maria notes, is "the name of a novel of Balzac's." Honoré de Balzac's Louis Lambert (1833) is about a mystical thinker who falls in love with a Mademoiselle de Villenois but, just before his marriage to her, suffers a sudden fit and subsequently loses touch with reality. As you read further, keep in mind the similarities of name and circumstance.
Chester is located about fifteen miles from Liverpool, the main seaport in central England.