Contemporary critics known as Structuralists have been arguing that binarism is fundamental and indispensable to human language, cognition and communication. Through binary ideas, man categorizes the seemingly chaotic world and imposes the notion of system on it. Therefore, binary oppositions help us to shape the entire world-views and to mark differences in an otherwise unorganized universe (Selden, 1989). This paper aims at discussing the novel The Ambassadors by Henry James in view of binary oppositions.
The Ambassadors tells about the journey of Lewis Lambert Strether to rescue his fiancée’s son, Chad Newsome from the clutches of a presumably wicked woman, and bring him back to the family business. On his way to Paris, Strether stops in England and met with Maria Gostrey, an American woman who has lived in Paris for many years. Her cynical wit and worldly-wise opinions start to rattle Strether’s preconceived view of the situation.
In Paris, Strether meets Chad and is impressed by the much greater sophistication he seems to have gained during his years in Europe. Chad takes him to a garden party where Strether meets Marie de Vionnet, a beautiful and gracious woman separated from her husband, with her daughter Jeanne. Strether is confused as to whether Chad is more attracted to the mother or the daughter. Strether’s impressions of Parisian culture bring him to confide with Little Bilham, a friend of Chad, that he might have missed the best that life has to offer. Strether starts to delight in the loveliness of Paris and actually stops Chad from returning to America. Mrs. Newsome, Strether’s fiancée and Chad’s mother, soon sends out new “ambassadors” to bring back Chad. Strether takes a small tour in the French countryside to escape these troubles, and accidentally meets Chad and Marie at a local motel. After he returns to Paris, he advised Chad not to leave Marie. Strether, then, finds himself no longer comfortable in Europe anymore. He decided to cancel marriage from Maria Gostrey and returns to America.
Lambert and Sarah: Success and Failure
The very title of the novel – The Ambassadors – refers to the game of strategy that is central to the story’s plot. The ambassadors are Lambert Strether and Sarah Pocock, namely. Though other characters play auxiliary roles in the story, like Jim and Mamie Pocock, and Waymarsh. These two ambassadors have been expressly assigned to the task of recovering Chad Newsome from the dangers of Parisian bohemia. In Mrs. Newsome’s service, both Strether and Sarah must use strategy if they are to succeed. Strether fails and Sarah succeeds.
Setting aside the questions of idealism and motive, the argument remains that Strether fails due to lack of strategy – he fails to do Mrs. Newsome’s instructions and then, when he has decided to advocate for the opposition, Strether fails again. When Strether argues for Woollett, Chad wants to remain in Paris. When Strether comes around and begins arguing for Paris, Chad is hesitant and cautious, eventually returning home despite Strether’s advice.
Sarah arrived in Paris determined to return home with her brother, Chad. While Strether dabbled in French high society and enjoyed his time with Chad’s new friends, Sarah took the strategic position referred to as “parti pris” (an obstinate position based upon a prejudgment). Sarah refused to compromise; she would not budge; her position was fixed and her demeanor was hard. Her demeanor matched her determination.
Strether, on the other hand, thought that he might perform so well in Parisian society that his newfound popularity and influence would allow him to press upon Chad. Instead, Strether was charmed and easily won over. Bilham and Miss Barrace were successful in their strategy: Strether anticipated a positive change in Chad – having been told that, in his time in Paris, Chad had changed for the better. Chad does such an expert job of bringing Strether to his side that midway through the novel, when Chad is at last ready to return home, Strether relinquishes the victory and bids Chad to enjoy Paris for a while longer – for Strether, himself, now wants to enjoy Paris.
In a limited sense, Madame de Vionnet is strategic. She knows that Chad must inevitably return home. She caused Strether into committing to “saving” her alongside Chad. This is an impossible mission, of course. De Vionnet is already married; furthermore, it is unlikely that she could ever join Chad in Woollett, Massachusetts. When Strether commits to helping de Vionnet, he puts himself in the unfortunate predicament of serving two unfriendly masters: Mrs. Newsome and Madame de Vionnet. De Vionnet knows that she cannot win in an ultimate sense – but she is able to buy more time with Chad. At a certain point, given her success with Strether, de Vionnet hopes to charm Sarah Pocock in a similar way. Perhaps in this manner, the Countess De Vionnet might have charmed each ambassador that was sent, and having done this, she could have kept Chad in Paris indefinitely.
The irony of the strategic outcome is that the Countess de Vionnet has lost despite her ‘home-court advantage.’ Even with the “Francophile” an admirer of France and everything French (Webster, 2001) and bohemian Americans to help her, even with Strether at her side, de Vionnet cannot win. When Sarah Pocock arrives, she is relatively unfamiliar with Paris but she has been to Paris before. Sarah is not charmed by the place, nor does she perceive a change for the better in Chad, nor does she intend to be unnerved by the fact of the Countess being a countess.
In contrast to the Countess, Mrs. Newsome is essentially an invalid, stranded at home in Woollett, Massachusetts. She has to send ambassadors because she cannot come to Paris herself. And when one considers that Mrs. Newsome has sent Mamie, Jim, Sarah, and Strether to fetch Chad – one sees that Mrs. Newsome is extremely vulnerable. For all her strength, she remains alone on one side of the ocean. In a sense, Mrs. Newsome has made quite a gamble, but then, Mrs. Newsome insists upon having what she wants.
Young vs. Old
An archetypal image of an old or aged one always connotes superiority, wisdom and stature over the young or the youth (Jung, 1990). However, this is seen differently in the story, particularly in the character of Strether and Chad, the former representing the old and the later representing the young. In Henry James’ fiction, the ideas of youth and age are often developed within the context of the New World vs. the Old World. This remains true of The Ambassadors, where we find a contrast between the Parisian scenes (Old World) and the American town back home (New World). The young Americans in Paris – Chad, Bilham, Miss Barrace, and Mamie Pocock – are in danger of being “spoiled” by Europe and Europeans. Worldliness, leisure, aristocracy, bohemianism, and in a subtle sense, religiosity, are among the most potent social forces that threaten to undo American identity. Chad’s rejection of Madame de Vionnet is a rejection of an older woman, a rejection of Paris and the Old World. Chad returns home to become a man of business. The business model flourishing in Woollett, Massachusetts is modern in comparison to the feudal and aristocratic Parisian high society.
For Strether, a man in his late middle age, Paris is developing. Strether recalls his earlier trip to Paris as a young man. His time in Paris is a time of nostalgia and reflection. Strether looks at his own history, senses regret, and hopes to intervene in Chad’s life. The older man does not want to see the young man become a “man of business” and remain unfulfilled in Woollett. Woollett is the New World but it does not promise eternal youth. Paris is archaic, but still capable of inspiring or rejuvenating the disillusioned or exhausted.
Chad and Strether undergo a major reversal. By the end of the novel, it is Strether who has articulated and acted upon youthful and naive principles. Chad has gone in, on his own, for a future in business. Indeed, the very fact of youth, the very fact that Chad has a longer life ahead of him causes him to behave conservatively. With a long life behind him (including a deceased wife and a buried son), Strether gives up the possibility of a wealthy future as Chad’s stepfather-in-law. With little left to lose, Strether is able to play his hand more freely. Having arrived on scene to rescue Chad, Strether remains in Paris – somewhat stranded at the end of the novel, hence a reversal of hierarchy, making the young triumph over the old.
Europe vs. America
Another very important structure of the novel is the role of setting or location in relation to the lives of the characters. In the novel, there are different significant settings such as Woollett, Massachusetts, Cannes France, London, England and other cities. However, there are two main places that highlights the change is most of the major character’s lives: Paris and America (Woollett, Massachusetts). These two signifies binary oppositions through the following:
Paris symbolizes the social, intellectual, and imaginative freedom of Europe. IAt the time, Parisian culture was thought to encourage sexual misconduct and vile relationships. Mrs. Newsome assumes—and fears—that Chad’s time in Paris will expose him to these forces. Strether remembers his first visit to Paris as a young man—and he fears that his return to the “vast bright Babylon,” as he calls Paris, will negatively affect him. He correctly realizes that his delight in Paris will permanently change him. But, as the novel progresses, Strether discovers that the trade-off is worth it. He enjoys Paris, and he welcomes the subsequent changes in his personality. In Woollett, social proprieties and a timid, young culture make people anxious and preoccupied. In Paris, however, Strether learns that he is able to live in the present moment, fully enjoying life. On the other hand, Woollett, Massachusetts, represents close- minded provincialism, and James contrast the small American town with the cosmopolitan European city.
Throughout the novel, the city figures as a symbol of the close-minded provincialism of small-town America. Initially, Strether is embarrassed to report to Miss Gostrey that he is from Woollett, because he identifies Woollett with all those things that oppose Parisian openness. Woollett,￼in the heart of New England, symbolizes the immature American cultural landscape. Timid, young American culture is so unsure of itself that it fears the influence of all outside forces, including the culturally rich Paris. Eventually, after Strether has experienced the positive effects of Parisian social freedom, he declares that Woollett has as a “female” culture—one characterized by gossiping, fearful women, like Sarah Pocock and Mrs. Newsome. He realizes that if Chad returns to Woollett, Chad will lose the refinement he has gained in Paris and become just one thing: a man out to make money. In this way, Woollett also represents the coarse, capitalistic nature of America in contrast to the artistic, aesthetic Parisian sensibility.
The Lived vs. Unlived Life
Strether represents the struggle to live life to the fullest extent. When he first met Miss Gostrey, he articulates his inability to fully appreciate the moments of his life. He feels as though he has suffered from this inability throughout his entire youth and adulthood, and he regrets having missed out on significant life experiences. Now middle-aged, Strether fears that he will never be able to live fully in the moment. But in Paris, he begins to experience truly saturated moments. In this way, Strether embodies the theme of the full, richly lived life versus the boring unlived life that is central to The Ambassadors. Strether originally goes to Paris with the intention of helping Chad fulfill his potential—as a businessman in Woollett. Yet, Strether eventually feels that Chad would lead a richer life by staying in Paris.
Strether further embodies the theme of the lived versus unlived life through his interactions with other characters. Once Strether realizes the benefits of truly living life, he begins to lecture such characters as little Bilham about enjoying their youth. In Gloriani’s garden, at the end of the first part of the novel, Strether corners little Bilham and tells him, with earnest optimism, to live life to the fullest. Strether believes he has missed his opportunity to experience all of what life has to offer, and he wants his young friends to learn from his mistakes. Nevertheless, Strether fails to convince Chad to stay in Europe with Madame de Vionnet. He blames Chad’s lack of imagination for his desire to return to the United States and take over the family business. Ultimately, Strether leaves Europe as well, having decided that life has in fact passed him by.
When it comes to literary studies, the discovery of thematic binary oppositions within literary texts is one of the central reading and interpretive strategies. The thematic significance of the whole text can be seen through the help of binaries (Selden, 1989). In the reading process of the novel The Ambassadors by Henry James, it is common for the reader to think in binary terms, spot fundamental binary oppositions, integrate them to form a framework, and decipher the meaning of the text suggested by such a structural system. This helps the reader to dig deeper in the novel through considering the different underpinnings of the text brought by the different binaries, not to mention the reversal of hierarchy of such binary patterns.
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