Have you ever wondered how long it would take someone to make a point if no one will say what they actually mean? It turns out that it takes hundreds and hundreds of pages, every one filled with characters constantly manipulating one another in the most devious and deliciously maddening of ways. In other words, welcome to the world of Henry James' The Ambassadors.
Believe it or not, James wasn't the most famous writer in the world when The Ambassadors came out in 1903. But after James' death, people began to look at books like this and realize that beneath the hundreds of pages of heavy description, there was a kernel of true genius at work. And that's the kernel that we Shmoopers are here to dissect.
On the surface, The Ambassadors is pretty straightforward. The main character—a middle-aged dude named Strether, has been sent from New England to Paris to track down his fiancée's no-good son and drag him back home to run the family business. Like we said, totally straightforward, right?
When he actually finds Chad (the son), he's bowled over by how cool and cultured the alleged slacker has become. In fact, Strether starts to wonder if Paris has actually made Chad into a way better person than he was back in America.
And of course, this can only make the middle-aged Strether wonder if his own life has passed him by, since he's always lived a boring, safe life in New England without knowing that exciting places like Paris even existed.
At its core, The Ambassadors is about learning to overcome your prejudices and judging things on their own merits—and not just for the sake of the people you meet, but for your own sake, too. Strether has spent his life judging things he has never experienced, and his judginess has kept him from experiencing, like, 99% of all the cool stuff life has to offer.
As he shouts into the face of a young artist we'll Shmoop later on, "Do what you like so long as you don't make my mistake. For it was a mistake. Live!" (5.2.14). And in a really cool, if occasionally obscure way, learning to live is what this novel's all about.
We're not going to lie: there's probably more than once in this book when you'll get really frustrated at the characters for playing mind games with one another (or with you). Why can't they just say what they think, for crying out loud? But cease your howls of distress: those mind games can make for some great literature.
Plus, the important thing is to realize just how much this frustration is probably connected to the same kinds of frustration you face in everyday life. Ever try to get your point across and it's like you're talking to someone who speaks a different language since they just do not get what you're saying? Sure, English is quite the complicated language. It's not so uncommon for people to come away from an important conversation feeling like they're been understood.
And on top of that normal sort of confusion, James is a total master at capturing all those subtle maneuvers people use to gain power in everyday conversations. You might, for example, ask a friend for encouragement about your class presentation or a job interview, and that friend will boost your spirits with something like, "oh don't worry, I'm sure you won't do anything too embarrassing." Or something equally pseudo-encouraging. Which means, um, maybe you should do a better job picking friends.
Anyway, it's these little bits of torture we inflict on each other every day that can really break us down over time. And it's not until we learn to be more direct with each other, and interacting with people who actually know how to be nice, that we can start making a better life for ourselves.
In James' time, conversational "wrestling" had pretty much become an art form. That's why James uses the metaphor of ambassadors to describe Strether's experience throughout the book. Ambassadors spend most of their lives negotiating with people who are often hostile, and their effectiveness depends entirely on how well they can manipulate language to persuade other people to do what they want. This is a crucial skill to learn in life, and it makes a fine display in The Ambassadors.
But don't worry: If you get super frustrated by this book's constant rambling, just remind yourself that there's always a reason why people don't say what they actually think. The key is to figure out what the reason is, and then you'll see everything. And hey, maybe you'll even learn something about communication in your own life. Or at least how to sneakily insult your friends.
The Ladder: A Henry James Website
For links to tons of free Henry James stuff, check out this site. Thank you, Public Domain.
Henry James Scholars Guide to Web Sites
It ain't the best looking site in the world, but hey, think of it as trying to mimic how things were in 1903. Anyway, it's chock-full of crucial links for anyone wanting to study Henry James.
The Henry James Society
Reserved for the biggest of James fans. Get ready to dork out, ambassador-style.
The Ambassadors (1965)
This made-for-TV movie is the only film interpretation of The Ambassadors in existence. Good luck getting your hands on a copy, though.
An (Unfortunate) Interview with Henry James
Sure, it's totally a work of fiction. But what are you gonna' do? You can still learn a smidgeon of James trivia, and it's definitely a good read.
Henry James, Jr.
An insightful piece on Henry James' life from our friends at The Literature Network.
The Master's Servants
An interesting article on James and the concept of why certain writers stand the test of time while others don't. Ironic considering he wasn't so well-known in his own time, but sure has stood some tests ever since.
The Ambassadors Audio Book, Pt. 1
It's a long book. So why not rest those eyes and let someone else read it to you for a while?
Henry James Daring You to Disagree with Him
Go on. Seriously. He dares you.
Fancy Pants Painting of James
It's kind of funny that we think of Waymarsh when we see the look on our dear author's face.
He even had those peering eyes when he was young. Guess that's how he peered into the souls of so many baller literary characters.
More of Young James
Not a bad lookin' dude. A young James Franco, maybe?