Summary and Analysis
Madame de Vionnet, whom Strether here compares to "a goddess still partly engaged in a morning cloud," joins Strether and Miss Barrace and asks her tactfully to leave in order to ask Strether a question: "Why has Maria so suddenly gone?" Strether explains that Maria has gone south to see a sick friend, but Madame de Vionnet is sure that Maria has left to avoid seeing her: "She doesn't want to meet me again." To Strether's relief, she then changes the subject and shortly after leaves.
Strether then has a long conversation with Little Bilham, which begins with Strether's telling him that he should think seriously about marrying Jeanne de Vionnet. Bilham feels he has no chance, considering the family, and adds, "Besides, there's Chad." Even though Chad is not in love with Jeanne, Bilham knows that Chad will have a say in whatever arrangements are made for her marriage. Strether wonders why. "How comes Chad so mixed up, anyway?" Bilham avoids the question, which gives Strether a "sense of moving in a maze of mystic closed allusions." Convinced at any rate of one thing — that the relationship between Chad and Madame de Vionnet is "virtuous" — Strether claims to understand "what such a high fine friendship may be. It can't be vulgar or coarse." He tells Bilham that Madame de Vionnet has "saved" Chad as a person-his character and life, his manners and morals. Bilham then informs Strether that Chad has recently decided that it might be best if he, Chad, did return to America. To Bilham's astonishment, Strether reveals that he thinks Chad and Madame de Vionnet should face the future together. "You mean that after all he shouldn't go back?" Bilham inquires. "I mean that if he gives her up . . . he ought to be ashamed of himself" is Strether's reply.
At this point in the story — the end of the first half of the novel — an ironic reversal has taken place. Strether, who had come on a mission to "save" Chad from Europe, has decided that Chad has been saved in quite another sense by Europe itself and should not return to America because of his obligation to Madame de Vionnet, the charming and refined lady whom Strether had earlier thought would prove a "base, venal" woman. But Chad, Little Bilham discloses, is now willing to return to Woollett. Strether's original mission has been replaced by another as a result of his changed attitudes, but this other mission presents problems more formidable than the first.
Strether has, because of his new perceptions and changed attitudes, forfeited his rights as "ambassador" from Woollett; and, as the reader will see, he is to be replaced in that office by a second wave of "ambassadors" in the persons of Sarah Pocock, Jim Pocock, and his sister, Mamie.