Summary and Analysis
Book 5: Chapter III
Maria joins Strether on the bench in the garden, and he tells her that it is Jeanne de Vionnet with whom Chad must be involved.
Maria's meeting with Chad's friends has been "a shock" since they proved to be "persons about whom . . . she might from the first have told him almost everything." Maria had been a schoolmate and good friend of Madame de Vionnet at Geneva some twenty-three years before. Madame de Vionnet, who had married immediately after school, is now no younger than thirty-eight, which makes her ten years older than Chad. Her mother had married her off to Monsieur de Vionnet, a "brute," and Madame de Vionnet had lived for years apart from him. Because of their station in life, divorce was out of the question. She settled in Paris, brought up her daughter, and in general "steered her boat." Maria is convinced that Madame de Vionnet intends that her daughter marry Chad, has "brought him up" for that purpose, and is counting on Strether to "put the thing through."
The next day, Strether and Chad meet and go off to a cafe to speak in privacy. Strether puts a question bluntly to Chad: "Are you engaged to be married — is that your secret? — to the young lady?" Chad replies that he is not and says only that he wants Strether to become friends with her mother, Madame de Vionnet, who, Chad explains, is the "hitch" in his leaving, in a way Strether will discover for himself. Leaving "will be the greatest loss I ever suffered. I owe her so much." Strether asks, blunt and faltering, if Madame de Vionnet is "bad," and then, rephrasing, asks if her life is without reproach. Chad blandly replies, "Absolutely without reproach. A beautiful life." Strether agrees to meet Chad later that afternoon and visit Madame de Vionnet.
The circumstances of Madame de Vionnet's childhood and unfortunate marriage heighten Strether's impression of her even further. The irony of his attitude early in the story — that she would prove "base, venal" — is now even more obvious.
Maria's amusement at Strether's failure to take the precaution to tell her the name of Chad's "woman" contains an observation about the change taking place in that "ambassador": "There could be no better example . . . than the way, making things out already so much for himself, he was at last throwing precaution to the winds."