The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors is a 1903 novel by Henry James, originally published as a serial in the North American Review (NAR). This dark comedy, seen as one of the masterpieces of James's final period, follows the trip of protagonist Lewis Lambert Strether to Europe in pursuit of Chad Newsome, his widowed fiancée's supposedly wayward son; he is to bring the young man back to the family business, but he encounters unexpected complications. The third-person narrative is told exclusively from Strether's point of view.

The Ambassadors
Cover of the first UK edition
AuthorHenry James
CountryUnited Kingdom, United States
GenreDark Comedy
PublisherMethuen & Co., London
Harper & Brothers, New York City
Publication date
Methuen: 24-Sept-1903
Harpers: 6-Nov-1903
Media typePrint (Serial)
PagesMethuen: 458
Harpers: 432

Plot summary

Lambert Strether, a middle-aged, yet not broadly experienced, man from Woollett, Massachusetts, agrees to assume a mission for his wealthy fiancée: go to Paris and rescue her son, Chad Newsome, from the clutches of a presumably wicked woman. On his journey, Strether stops in England and there meets Maria Gostrey, an American who has lived in Paris for years. Her cynical wit and worldly opinions start to rattle Strether's preconceived view of the situation.

In Paris, Strether meets Chad and is impressed by the much greater sophistication Chad seems to have gained during his years in Europe. Chad takes him to a garden party, where Strether meets Marie de Vionnet, a lovely woman of impeccable manners, separated from her reportedly unpleasant husband, and Jeanne, her exquisite daughter. Strether is confused as to whether Chad is more attracted to the mother or the daughter. At the same time, Strether, himself, feels an overwhelming attraction to Marie de Vionnet, which he suspects she might requite, and so begins questioning his commitment to return to Woollett and marry Chad's mother, despite his admiration for her.

All of these impressions of Parisian culture lead Strether to confide in Little Bilham, a friend of Chad's, that he might have missed the best life has to offer. Strether starts to delight in the loveliness of Paris and stops Chad from returning to America. Strether's American traveling companion, Waymarsh, provides thematic counterpoint, by refusing to be seduced by the charms of Europe.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Newsome, impatiently waiting in America, enlists new "ambassadors" to return forthwith with her son. The most important of the new ambassadors, Chad's sister Sarah Pocock, harshly dismisses Strether's impression that Chad has improved, condemns Marie as an indecent woman, and demands that Chad immediately return to the family business in America.

To escape his troubles, Strether takes a brief tour of the French countryside, and accidentally encounters Chad and Marie de Vionnet at a rural inn; he then comprehends the full extent of their romance. After returning to Paris, he counsels Chad not to leave Marie, but Strether finds he is now uncomfortable in Europe. In the end, he declines Maria Gostrey's virtual marriage proposal and returns to America.

Major themes

Henry James got the central idea for The Ambassadors from an anecdote about his friend and fellow-novelist William Dean Howells, who, whilst visiting his son in Paris, was so impressed with the amenities of European culture that he wondered aloud if life hadn't passed him by.

The theme of liberation from a cramped, almost starved, emotional life into a more generous and gracious existence plays throughout The Ambassadors, yet it is noteworthy that James does not naïvely portray Paris as a faultless paradise for culturally stunted Americans. Strether learns about the reverse side of the European coin when he sees how desperately Marie fears losing Chad, after all she has done for him. As one critic proposed, Strether does not shed his American straitjacket only to be fitted with a more elegant European model, but instead learns to evaluate every situation on its merits, without prejudices. The final lesson of Strether's European experience is to distrust preconceived notions and perceptions from anyone, anywhere, but to rely upon his own observation and judgment.

Mediation/Intermediation: a major theme of the novel involves Strether's position as an ambassador. Strether, when giving his final account to Maria Gostrey, justifies his decisions by connecting his intermediary position to his concerns about gaining experience (and pleasure) whilst working in behalf of others. This conflict between personal desire and duty is important to consider when thinking about Strether's psychology.[1]

Publishing history

The publishing history of The Ambassadors is complex, even for a work by James. The novel was written between October 1900 and July 1901,[2] before The Wings of the Dove (1902), yet he did not immediately find a publisher. To fit the eventual NAR serialization, passages were omitted, including three chapters. For the book versions, James expected to use the serial-version proofs to provide the majority of copy to the London and New York City publishers, but the NAR supplied him only one set, instead of the requested two; thus, in August 1903, James supplied the British publisher with a carbon-copy of the unrevised, original typescript to enable them to meet their scheduled publication date. Moreover, at that time, he also lacked duplicate copies of the omitted passages, and those two circumstances resulted in significant textual variations in the Methuen edition.[3] One of the most serious variations was that a chapter, not published in the serial version, was inserted before 'chapter 28', not after it, as in the Harper edition (which James thoroughly proof-read). Five years later, when he prepared the revised text for the New York Edition (NYE), James worked from the Harper edition, and the two chapters (numbers 28 and 29) became chapters 1 and 2 in book 11.

In 1950, Robert E. Young, knowing neither the Methuen edition difference nor the details of James's work on the novel, argued[4] that the NYE order was incorrect, based upon the chronology of the story's events. Most critics agreed with Young, especially when Leon Edel noted the Methuen edition order,[5] and, since then, most published versions of The Ambassadors, which usually use the NYE text, have reversed the order of the two chapters; however, the textual and bibliographical scholar Jerome McGann reopened the question in 1992.[6] He noted that the publishing history revealed by Birch[3] made it unlikely that James had the order wrong in the editions he closely supervised. Moreover, he controversially claimed that when James wrote to novelist Mrs Humphry Ward mentioning a "fearful ... weakness"[7] he was referring to the chapter order in her Methuen edition copy. McGann explained the chronological discrepancies by noting that the start of (the Harper edition) chapter 28 tells that it will describe a conversation that will occur in the 'future' (relative to the juncture reached in the story), and that the 'that evening' line, at the start of chapter 29, refers not to the evening just described in chapter 28, but to the previous one.

Since 1992, few publishers of new editions of The Ambassadors have followed McGann's research and restored James's apparently preferred order, but, in characteristic postmodern way, it is now up to the reader to decide in which order these chapters should be read.

Literary significance and criticism

In the New York Edition preface Henry James proclaimed The Ambassadors as the best of his novels. Critics have generally agreed that it ranks high in the list of his achievements, though E. M. Forster and F. R. Leavis have been notable dissenters. James's evocation of Paris has gained many plaudits, as the city becomes a well-realized symbol of the beauty and the sorrow of European culture.

Critical controversy has swirled over Strether's refusal of Maria Gostrey, with some seeing it as a perverse rejection of his best chance for happiness. Others have said that Strether, whilst a great friend of Maria's, is not in love with her, and that the couple could not have made a successful marriage. Critics also have speculated about whether or not Chad will heed Strether's advice to remain with Marie, or if he will return to America for the substantial rewards of family business – their general verdict is that Chad will follow the money.

In a letter to a friend, James said that Strether bears a vague resemblance (though not facial) to his creator. It is true that Strether shows an ability to grow in understanding and good judgment, although some critics have seen him as limited and timid, despite his European experiences.

A continuing literary mystery is the nature of the "little nameless object" made in Woollett. Strether calls it: "a little thing they make—make better, it appears, than other people can, or than other people, at any rate, do"; and he calls the business: "a manufacture that, if it's only properly looked after, may well be on the way to become a monopoly". In an article in Slate magazine, Joshua Glenn proposes that the nameless object is a toothpick,[8] while other critics have proposed matches, toilet articles, button hooks, et cetera.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked The Ambassadors 27th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Adaptations and influences


  • Patricia Highsmith's novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), begins with the protagonist, Tom Ripley, traveling to Europe in pursuit of a wealthy man's son with orders to bring him back to the family business. The inspiration is acknowledged in the novel with an explicit mention of James' The Ambassadors.
  • Cynthia Ozick's novel, Foreign Bodies (2010), tells the story of The Ambassadors with a woman as the protagonist.

Stage productions

  • A musical theatre version of The Ambassadors, titled Ambassador, was first produced in 1971 in London's West End, then on Broadway in 1972; it proved unsuccessful.



  • The Ambassadors: An Authoritative Text, The Author on the Novel, Criticism edited by S.P. Rosenbaum (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994) ISBN 0-393-96314-4
  • The Novels of Henry James by Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1983) ISBN 0-8044-2959-6
  • The Novels of Henry James by Oscar Cargill (New York: Macmillan Co., 1961)
  • The Ambassadors: The Cambridge Edition of the Complete Fiction of Henry James, vol. 18, edited by Nicola Bradbury (Cambridge University Press, 2015) ISBN 978-1107002838


  1. Rivkin, Julie: False Positions: The Representational Logic of Henry James's Fiction. Stanford U P (1996). pp.58-59
  2. Horne, Philip (ed.): Henry James: a life in letters, London, Allen Lane (Penguin Press), 1999, ISBN 0-7139-9126-7, pages 344, 356
  3. Birch, Brian: "Henry James: some bibliographical and textual matters", Library, ser. 5, vol. 20 (1965), 108–23; also known as Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, ser. 3, vol. 20
  4. Young, Robert E.: "A error in The Ambassadors", American Literature 22 (November 1950), 245-53
  5. Edel, Leon. "A further note on 'An error in The Ambassadors'", American Literature 23 (March 1951), 128-30
  6. McGann, Jerome: "Revision, rewriting, rereading; or, 'An error [not] in The Ambassadors'", American literature 64 (1992), 95-110; reprinted in: McWhirter, David (ed.): Henry James's New York edition: the construction of authorship, Stanford, CA : Stanford University Press, 1995, ISBN 0-8047-2564-0, pages 109-22
  7. James, Henry: "Letter to Mrs Humphrey Ward, December 16th 1903", C. Waller Barrett Collection, University of Virginia Library; printed in McGann, Jerome: op.cit., page 122
  8. Glenn, Joshua (31 October 2007). "Is It a Chamber Pot?" via Slate.
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