Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Henry James' "The Ambassadors" Plot Thickens

"I've come, you know, to make you break with everything, neither more nor less, and take you straight home; so you'll be so good as immediately and favourably to consider it!"—Strether, face to face with Chad after the play, had sounded these words almost breathlessly, and with an effect at first positively disconcerting to himself alone.

Strether had the next minute proceeded as roundly as if with an advantage to follow up. "Of course I'm a busybody, if you want to fight the case to the death; but after all mainly in the sense of having known you and having given you such attention as you kindly permitted when you were in jackets and knickerbockers. Yes—it was knickerbockers, I'm busybody enough to remember that; and that you had, for your age—I speak of the first far-away time—tremendously stout legs. Well, we want you to break. Your mother's heart's passionately set upon it, but she has above and beyond that excellent arguments and reasons. I've not put them into her head—I needn't remind you how little she's a person who needs that. But they exist—you must take it from me as a friend both of hers and yours—for myself as well. I didn't invent them, I didn't originally work them out; but I understand them, I think I can explain them—by which I mean make you actively do them justice; and that's why you see me here. You had better know the worst at once. It's a question of an immediate rupture and an immediate return. I've been conceited enough to dream I can sugar that pill. I take at any rate the greatest interest in the question. I took it already before I left home, and I don't mind telling you that, altered as you are, I take it still more now that I've seen you. You're older and—I don't know what to call it!—more of a handful; but you're by so much the more, I seem to make out, to our purpose."

"Your engagement to my mother has become then what they call here a fait accompli?"
"Yes," he said brightly, "it was on the happy settlement of the question that I started. You see therefore to what tune I'm in your family. Moreover," he added, "I've been supposing you'd suppose it."

"Oh I've been supposing it for a long time, and what you tell me helps me to understand that you should want to do something. To do something, I mean," said Chad, "to commemorate an event so—what do they call it?—so auspicious. I see you make out, and not unnaturally," he continued, "that bringing me home in triumph as a sort of wedding-present to Mother would commemorate it better than anything else. You want to make a bonfire in fact," he laughed, "and you pitch me on. Thank you, thank you!" he laughed again.

And so, finally, after about 100 pages (in the Dover edition I'm reading) Henry James comes straight out and tells the reader exactly what Lewis Strether is doing in Paris, chasing after Chad Newsome. Chad's mother, the Widow Newsome, has been earlier introduced as Stether's patron and employer, more-or-less, but it has been subtly revealed that Stether and Mrs Newsome are in fact engaged. Oh, Strether, you just don't see anything beyond your uptight rural Massachusetts morality, do you? Well, Stether is having his horizons broadened in Paris, let me tell you. One gets the sense that Mrs Newsome is not going to be pleased at all by the outcome of her fiance's experiences in the City of Lights. "Oh, America," the cosmopolitan James says. "You are missing so much of life! You went all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to make money and to forget how to have fun."

It took 100 pages for Strether to find Chad. And frankly, Stether wasn't really looking so much as he was wandering around, enjoying Paris (and, one suspects, enjoying the physical distance from Mrs Newsome though Strether also seems to--if not enjoy, exactly--relax into the familiar yoke of bondage when reading Mrs Newsome's long and frequent letters) and telling himself that he'd begin the search in earnest...tomorrow. It was up to Chad to locate Strether, at the theater. Strether makes himself out in this passage to be a dedicated and energetic agent, but honestly he drifts more than he steers a course. This is also a good passage to demonstrate Stether-in-flux, with his aggressive yet servile posture toward the son of his patroness/fiancee ("I am here on business! We have demands!" and "I've known you since you were a young whippersnapper and I will be your father-in-law soon enough, therefore I have behind me the iron will of your terrifying mother so please, I beg of you, don't make a fuss!").

(Note: I have edited the above-quoted passage down, cutting a lot of exposition that won't make sense without the previous three books.)

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