Summary and Analysis
Book 5: Chapter II
Chad leads Strether to Madame de Vionnet, and, as they approach, Strether finds her youthful air "almost disconcerting." He is impressed by her English — "charming correct and odd" — and struck by her appearance; she is "exceedingly fair, and, though she was as markedly slim, her face had a roundness, with eyes far apart and a little strange. Her smile was natural." Chad leaves them, and they take seats on a bench in the garden. After five minutes, Strether decides that she "differed . . . scarcely at all — well, superficially speaking, from Mrs. Newsome or even from Mrs. Pocock . . . to his relief she came out as the usual thing." They speak only briefly and at no depth, then a lady and two gentlemen approach; Madame de Vionnet goes off with one of the gentlemen, leaving Strether alone.
Bilham returns to Strether's side, and Strether then unburdens himself of feelings that have been building in him: "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had? This place and these impressions — mild as you may find them to wind a man up so . . . have had their abundant message for me. . . . I see it now. I haven't done so enough before — and now I'm old; too old at any rate for what I see. . . . one lives in fine as one can. . . . the affair of life — couldn't, no doubt, have been different for me. . . . Still, one has the illusion of freedom; therefore don't be, like me, without the memory of that illusion. . . . Do what you like so long as you don't make my mistake. For it was a mistake. Live!"
A young girl in a white dress and a plumed white hat approaches with Chad at her side; it is Mademoiselle Jeanne de Vionnet, "unmistakably pretty — bright gentle shy happy wonderful — ." Strether suddenly realizes how much he would have enjoyed being like Chad: "The virtuous attachment would be all there before him." Jeanne tells Strether that her mother would like him to visit her because she has something important to tell him. Strether is sure she will tell him "that some way for the young people must be discovered, some way that would not impose as a condition the transplantation of her daughter." After another minute or so, she and Chad withdraw. Strether turns to find that Bilham is also gone.
Although Strether at last meets Madame de Vionnet in this chapter, the scene is underplayed by James; the focus of the chapter is on Strether's speech to Bilham, which may properly be regarded as the climax of the first half of The Ambassadors. Strether's remarks are less an appeal to Bilham than a declaration of Strether's perception that he himself has not fully lived. The reader will recall how in the first chapter of the novel, Strether and Maria speak of "the failure to enjoy"; the scene here is a culmination of the import of that earlier moment. Strether now realizes what Europe has done for Chad; he has enjoyed, he has "lived."
James remarks in his "Preface" to The Ambassadors: "Nothing is more easy than to state the subject of The Ambassadors . . . the whole case, in fine, is in Lambert Strether's irrepressible outbreak to little Bilham on the Sunday afternoon in Gloriani's garden."
In a notebook entry for 1895, James reveals the "germ" of the story of The Ambassadors by recounting how William Dean Howells delivered to James' intimate friend Jonathan Sturges substantially the same speech that Strether makes to Bilham. James remarks that, "as usual," he saw in it the subject for a novel.