In his psychological novels, especially The Ambassadors, Henry James examines the uncomfortable and even painful life realities that people go through. Showing the sad reality and going against such popular ideas, like psychological realism and Romantic idealism, became very popular among participants of modernism. Through the principal character, named Lambert Strether, the author portrays the real-life human emotions and perceptions of life, with all regrets, pains, and hidden feelings. In this book, the author focuses on the inward characterization and analysis, rather than the plot development. In The Ambassadors, James’s constant concern is self-awareness. Only the clear perception of others yields wisdom. This essay aims to analyze Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors, as a clear example of psychological realism. It demonstrates the complicated psychological state of the main hero, named Lambert Strether.
When the novel starts, the principal character Strether lives an ordinary life in Woollett. Being under domination and control of Mrs. Newsome, Strether’s life is calm, dispassionate, and without love and emotions. However, when he comes to London with his ambassadorial mission and becomes friends with Maria Gostrey, he feels something new, something he has never felt before. When living in London for a few days, he feels a little confused, as he has left behind his usual position and found himself in different circumstances. He begins to perceive the world differently. He often reflects on his internal feelings and thoughts. Maria Gostrey is surprised to notice Strether’s deep unhappiness of thought. She recommends a man to start being happy, to enjoy every day of his life. However, he considers that only young people can live the full life and that only youth is for joy. It makes him upset, as he understands that he becomes older and his joy has gone. He feels disappointed, as he has spent his youth without truly enjoying it. Strether demonstrates the inner fights and desire to feel the life from all its sides. During the first meeting with Miss Gostrey, Strether is unable to perceive the moments of his life (James and Butler 145). She later changes his mind and evokes his feellings. He feels as if he has never lived before. He pities that, being younger, he has missed the essentials of life and the valuable life experiences.
Gostrey realizes that Strether is unwilling to be happy. His problem is that he sees Europe through the prism of prejudiced American ideas. He cannot enjoy the life he lives, as it lacks emotional moments. Europe makes it possible for people to enjoy their lives. Paris emboldens every person, even a disappointed man, to enjoy the life in all its forms and displays. In Paris, Strether sees how the art of enjoying life at its fullest extreme looks like. The readers can easily notice how often Strether says that he has not lived his life to the full when being younger and how much he regrets it. Here, a failure to live a full life is another important theme in the novel. As Maria Gostrey has opened his eyes to the new possibilities, his worldview, and the attitude to life has completely changed. That is why, Strether advises little Bilham that it is essential to live all he can. He warns him if Bilham does not enjoy his life while young, he will regret it later. Strether realizes his mistake and tells that it is wrong not to live a full life. Additionally, Strether advises to live the life today because later may be too late. He confesses that he has always done unnecessary things instead of feeling the moment of life.
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Now Strether is aging, and he is afraid that he will not be able to breathe or feel the life the way he did. When he comes to Paris, he starts experiencing really intense, and satiate moments. Due to the helpful advices and guidance of Miss Gostrey, Strether tries to move forward. He attempts to forget about the pain and regrets and tries to live his life focusing on the present moment. Accordingly, he represents the topic of the richly and fully lived life versus the annoying and dully lived life.
The aim of Strether’s visiting Paris was the request of Mrs. Newsone to bring her son Chad back home. His initial intention was to help Chad take the right path, as a business person, in Woollett. However, Strether fails to fulfill this task. He has sunk in the atmosphere of Paris and believes that Chad should have a better and richer life in Paris, than living a boring, dispassionate life, working for the good of the family business (James and Butler 215).
Strether implements the idea of the lived versus unlived life by his relationships with other people. When Strether thinks about the advantages of enjoying the life, he starts teaching others, his younger acquaintances. For example, he gives the advices to little Bilham. In Gloriani’s garden, Strether tells Bilham to live his life to the fullest. Of course, he has lost many possibilities to do all that he wanted in his youth. That is why, he wants others to omit the mistakes he made himself. However, Strether is unable and even unwilling to persuade Chad Newsome to leave Europe (James and Butler 121). He understands that ultimately Chad will regret returning to the United States, as well as taking up his family’s business. In the end, Strether chooses to leave Europe with a thought that life passed by him. However, he is still sure that Little Bilham should not make a fatal mistake. The readers may feel that this speech is important, not as much for Bilham but for Strether himself. Of course, he wants his younger friend to be happy. In this conversation with Bilham, Strether expresses his new ideas about himself and his life. Henry James uses psychological realism in this speech. Strether has failed to enjoy his life, and his belief that he has not fully lived is the main expression of that theme in The Ambassadors. According to Henry James, the conversation between Strether and Little Bilham is very important in The Ambassadors, as it shows the psychology of the main character.
The symbol of a clock plays a very important role and is significant to the theme of the lived life. A clock is a visualization of time that passes and is never standing still. A clock gives people the reminder that it is necessary to live today, and not miss the moments of happiness. The “unclocked” and unlimited Europe contrasts with “clocked” and restricted morality of Woollett. The life in Paris is unstable and unpredictable, while people in Woollett have to live by the clock. Additionally, a watch illustrates how mechanic human’s life is. The author mentions some mysterious, unknown, and unnamed object, manufactured in the Newsome factory that, as James says, would be a great commentary on everything. That secret fabrication of Woollett can be the clocks. Strether realizes how much of life he has wasted, as he has never breathed the life to the full.
The Ambassadors is full of the conversations with the hidden meanings. The secrets become explicit long after the fact. In The Ambassadors, Henry James does not reveal the truth immediately but makes the readers perceive it. As the book represents psychological realism, it is interesting to observe how Strether’s psychology is changing throughout the whole novel. His initial task was to convince Chad to go back to the USA, so he had a serious intention to persuade a young man to join the family business and start a new exemplary life. However, the changing of the standard environment and meeting the new acquaintances, such as Waymarsh and Maria Gostrey make Strether look at life differently. At first, he feels disappointment and complete regret, as he thinks that he has never felt satisfaction with his life. But then he becomes ready to expand his worldview. The author does not write it exactly, but the readers may understand through the lines that Strether has never been to Europe. It means that he has never felt all the delights of life. Exploring the world of Paris, he tries to feel all its charms and pleasures. He begins to give the advices to his younger friends, asking them not to lose the moments of precious life they are given. The conversation with Bilham marks the climax of Strether’s psychological state. He even finds it right to kept Chad from arriving back home and starting a boring life. However, at the end of the novel, he realizes that it is impossible to return the lost time and the youth.
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While reading The Ambassadors, the readers may notice that psychological realism is closely connected with the principal theme of the book – the theme of the unlived life. As James develops, his novels become more psychological and less concerned with external events. The most important events are all psychological. The moments of intense illumination show the main character Lambert Strether his previous blindness. As for me, this work is not merely the work of fiction, but of psychology. It shows the whole spectrum of human’s thoughts and emotions. The theme of the lived versus unlived life along with the “fail to enjoy” are essential in The Ambassadors. In Paris, people live moment-to-moment life, with pleasure and aestheticism. In Paris, Strether is trying his best to live the today’s moment. In Woollett, it has been all about the mechanical existence. Strether gives one precious advice to all the readers. It is not right to waste one’s valuable time for looking back and recalling the past.