Henry James’ The Ambassadors may well be the world’s worst-written great novel. His prose calls out for for an editor with a red pencil. At best, a number of his sentences have to be read twice to be comprehensible; at worst, some remain incomprehensible.
Here, in a least-to-worst listing, are eight of the faults I see in The Ambassadors.
1. Confusion over pronoun references. Some of the dialogue so mixes “he” and “him” or “she” and “her” that one has to mark up the text to figure out who is saying what.
2. Comma omissions. The story goes that when the novel was going to be printed James systematically removed commas from the text that had been published in serial form in The North American Review. As a result, we are faced with many unpunctuated heaps of modifiers: Mme. de Vionnet makes a remark with a look of “refined disguised suppressed" passion on her face (IX.1). The similar endings in “ed” in that sentence come through strongly in another heap: “He was . . .easy and acute and deliberate—unhurried, unflurried, unworried, only at most a little less amused than usual” (VIII.i). Here the “ed” endings chime strongly, while James’ habitual use of negatives in this novel—“un-, un-, un-” plus the internal rhymes of “hurry, flurry, worry” together form a sentence that pleads to be rewritten.
At times, James almost appears to be getting something down in brief, a kind of shorthand that he hopes to come back to and expand. Take his description of Mamie on the balcony in IX.iii: a second look presents her as “beautiful brilliant unconscious” Mamie, a Mamie used rather shabbily, but “absorbed interested and interesting.”
This pattern of shorthand reaches its extreme in James’ statement when Strether thinks about the cessation of Mrs. Newsome’s letters. In her silence, Strether reflects, she demonstrated a greater intensity: "deep devoted delicate sensitive noble” (VII.iii).
3. Odd locutions. In their first meeting (I.i), Maria Gostrey remarks to Strether, “My own fate has been too many for me, and I’ve succumbed to it.” “Too many”? Another, Strether to Chad: “You see therefore to what tune I’m in your family” (IV.1).
Another example: “He [Chad] was modestly benevolent, the boy—that was at least what he had been capable of the superiority of making out his chance to be; and one had one’s self literally not had the gumption to get in ahead of him” (III.ii).
4. Excessive Repetition of significant words and phrases. “Came over” in the fourth paragraph of II.i is an example. How many times does “case” occur? So many times it becomes a crutch. Equally overused are “in” versus “out.” “Save” occurs so often it becomes tedious.
5. Mysterious allusions that remain mysterious. Waymarsh seems to function primarily as a foil to Strether. Rather than being open to what Europe in general and Paris in particular have to offer, Waymarsh glowers grandly at what’s before him. This glowering is described as Waymarsh's sacred rage. “It’s the sacred rage, Strether had had further time to say [to Maria Gostrey]; and this sacred rage was to become between them, for convenient comprehension, the description of one of his periodical necessities” (closing paragraph of I.iii). Repeated periodically (II.i; IV.ii; VI.ii; X.ii), this phrase “sacred rage” never becomes comprehensible, let alone conveniently so.
The term “pagan” is another. Strether realizes relatively early on that Chad must be a pagan: “Pagan—yes, that was, wasn’t it? what Chad would logically be. It was what he must be. It was what he was” (IV.1). But what does this mean? And why does James capitalize it near the end of this chapter?
6. Excessive rhetoric. Some extended metaphors simply expire from their own weight. For example, in II.ii, Strether is taking a walk: "He wasn’t there for his own profit—not, that is, the direct; he was there on some chance of feeling the brush of the wing of the stray spirit of youth. He felt it in fact, he had it beside him; the old arcade indeed, as his inner sense listened, gave out the faint sound, as from far off, of the wild waving of wings. They were folded now over the breasts of buried generations; but a flutter of two lived again in the turned page of shock-headed slouch-hatted loiterers . . . "[and off the sentence goes in another direction.]
Perhaps aligned with “pagan” are the sacrifices to strange gods on alien altars. Strether comments to Bilham, “I’ve been sacrificing so to strange gods that I feel I want to put on record, somehow, my fidelity—fundamentally unchanged after all—to our own. I feel as if my hands were embrued with the blood of monstrous alien altars—of another faith altogether” (X.i). Are we meant to respond to such phrases with appreciation of Strether's facetious irony? I don’t believe so. If this is the case, James is altogether too heavy handed. And if it’s not the case, why is James employing “embrued with blood,” the kind of heightened rhetoric derived from Senecan tragedy and delightfully parodied in the Pyramus and Thisby episode in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?
7. Strether’s incomprehension that love can be carnal. Strether’s realization that Chad and Mme. de Vionnet are physically intimate is set up as the climax of the novel, and he is shocked, truly shocked, by this knowledge. But, as indeed Maria Gostrey asks in effect, What did he expect? She herself wondered if Strether were grandly cynical or grandly vague (XII.iii). Perhaps the most we can say to excuse Strether’s incomprehension is that he took Bilham’s reassurance that their relationship was “virtuous” to mean “chaste,” but that only ducks the question of why James chose to have Strether be so credulous.
8. Inept portrayal of women. James is not good at portraying women in this novel as anything other than perceptive listeners who can help a man formulate his thoughts about other issues. Mamie Pocock is a good example. Her role in the novel appears to be the person who can save Chad (II.i). For Strether, she represents the best of American womanhood: “she was handsome and portly and easy and chatty, soft and sweet and almost disconcertingly reassuring” (IX.iii). Even her teeth are lovely. And, unlike her sister-in-law, she turns out to be altogether on Strether's side. But what does James make Strether reflect? “Mamie would be fat, too fat, at thirty; but she would always be the person who, at the present sharp hour, had been disinterestedly tender” (IX.iii). Why on earth would James include the dismissive attitude of the first half of that sentence?
Maria Gostrey starts off as someone attractive, but her function in the novel is soon reduced to being a sounding board for Strether. Were she more, we might be bothered by Strether’s paying no attention to her assertion,“There’s nothing, you know, I wouldn’t do for you,” and then following that with: “There’s nothing,” she repeated, “in all the world” (XII.v). The scheme of the novel demands that Strether finally stand on his own two feet and face an uncertain future with less than adequate financial resources, so we can understand why James has to have Strether insist on his own disinterestedness. Whether we are persuaded that is what someone like Strether actually would do in these circumstances is a different matter.
Sarah Pocock is almost completely unrealized. The second of the two ambassadors, she exists only as the real presence in Paris of Mrs. Newsome's unyielding will in Woollett, Massachusetts.
Mme. de Vionnet fares much better, in part because Strether has to ascertain who she is and her status. Even when he has, however, James is careful to keep her at a remove from Strether. When Strether meets her accidentally, it’s in the sacred precincts of Notre Dame. Strether appears to be afraid of entanglements with her, even though he is determined to “save” her. As I noted above, he has a less than accurate notion of how Chad relates to her until, in a pastoral scene that owes much to landscape painting, he finally sees them on the river. After that episode, James has Strether lecture Chad on how he should treat her: if Chad were to leave her, he would be “a brute,” “guilty of the last infamy,” “a criminal of the deepest dye” (XII.iv). At the risk of appearing insensitive to the text, I detect no irony here on James’ part. He appears to believe what Strether says but, unfortunately, what Strether says is not only hyperbolic but absurd. Like saying to a child, “Don’t even think of putting string beans up your nose,” Strether's condemnation implants the very idea he means to prohibit.
This is a long list of negative aspects, I realize. What, then, are we to make of this novel? At moments, it is wonderful. I daresay that no one who has read it ever forgets Strether lecturing Bilham: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to” (V.ii). At its best, the novel represents a relatively cultured older American trying to come to terms with a European mode of life he doesn’t understand. If he makes some mistakes in enlarging his comprehension, he imagines most of it correctly, and through this sustained effort of imagination he gains his own independence.
I have never read a biography of James, so I have no idea about what was going on in his own life while he was composing The Ambassadors. Did he write it in his own version of a hurried, flurried, worried state of mind? If so, why didn’t he revise it when it was going to come out in novel form? There’s no question he could write better prose: The Beast in the Jungle was also published in 1903, and its prose is deft, direct, and to the point. (It’s also possible, I suppose, that a good editor went over that piece before it saw print.) As the old saying has it, writing is comparatively easy; it’s revision that’s hard. Good as The Ambassadors is, it would have been even better if James had spent more time revising.