Themes in Henry James's The Ambassadors

Henry James primarily deals with multiple themes like subject matters of life, society and politics. His major interests were in gender roles, sexual expression and suppression, marriage-less life of the main characters, sexuality full of questions, language, race, expatriation, and culture. In his novel The Ambassadors, he mainly focuses on two themes: lived life and the new world versus the old world.

Henry James (1843-1916)

Lived life

Strether's life in Woollett was habitual and mechanical. Under the subjugating impact of Mrs. Newsome, Strether lived a kind of loveless and dispassionate life. To execute his ambassadorial mission, he landed on the soil of London. In London, he befriended his guide Maria Gostrey. As he started living in London for a few days he felt somewhat disturbed. He always used to reflect upon his own inner thoughts and feelings. Maria Gostrey was somewhat surprised to see the brooding nature of Lambert Strether. So, she advised Strether to enjoy himself. He cannot enjoy himself because he found youths enjoying. This saddened him because his days in youth passed joylessly. Gostrey found Strether reluctant to enjoy. She comments on Strether by saying, 'Strether why can't you enjoy? Enjoy yourself. It is a failure not to enjoy. He, at the first attempts, sees Europe through the lens of preconceived American ideas. That is why he felt troubled. He cannot enjoy a lived life. Europe enables people to live a lived life. Paris encourages even person to enjoy life from every side.

In Paris Strether knew for the first time the art of enjoying life at its fullest extreme. Frequently Strether says that he has not fully lived. This articulation of Strether that he has not fully lived life indicates that the failure to enjoy is a major theme of The Ambassadors. With this changed attitude to life, Strether advises little Bilham 'Live all you can, it is a mistake not to'. In addition Strether himself confesses that he is always preoccupied with something other than the thing of the moment. That means Paris always expects its individual to live moment-to-moment pleasingly and aesthetically. It is silly of people to waste a precious moment in contemplation of the past. Moreover, there is a clock-imagery. This clock-imagery reveals that in Woollett, Strether was living a mechanical life. Here in Paris, he was struggling to live moment to moment aesthetically. In Woollett he was mechanically aware. In Paris he had been struggling to be aesthetically aware. Hence the failure to enjoy is the most illuminating theme of The Ambassadors.

New World versus Old World

The theme of new versus old world can be profoundly found in James's novel especially in The Ambassadors. In the novel, Paris stands for the old world and in contrast to it, America symbolizes the new world. Paris as being the old world possesses worldliness, leisure, aristocracy, artistry, and a sense of seizing the day, which means live the life to the fullest when you are living. Live moment to moment so as to see the beauty of life that is around you. Whereas, the new world is the world of machine. Life is calculated in terms of time and money. Time has monetary value in the American new world. No art and aesthetic is valued.

The young people of America living in Paris are in threat of being swayed away in the flood of leisurely life of Paris. Chad represents this group of people. He is enchanted by the spell of Paris and Madame De Vionnet's aristocracy. He rejects the life of a businessman in his hometown Woollett and enjoying carefree and responsibility free life. Strether has come to rescue Chad from the passivity of life, but in the course of the time, Strether himself falls into the trap of the Parisian lifestyle and finally gives up an idea of returning to Woollett. He had been in Paris in his youth, but then he failed to see the life from such a beautiful perspective. He regrets for that and feels incomplete and unfulfilled. He does not want Chad to lead a life of businessman and feel same like him in his old age. Though Woollett is a new world, it does not have the natural charm of life and eternal youth. But Paris, despite being an old world, though not progressive in the sense of money, it possesses the true way of living. It inspires and refreshes the life of people. In this way, the paradoxical situation is that at first Chad represents the old world and Strether stands for the new world, but at the end of the novel, the situation is vice-versa.