Critical Essays Style of The Ambassadors

Although no one has seriously accepted James’ suggestion that The Ambassadors be read at the rate of five pages a day in order to be fully appreciated, such a statement provides some indication of the difficulties the reader may encounter on first turning to the novel. These difficulties arise primarily from the techniques and devices James employs in the development of the narrative and are a result of two of his technical innovations: the restricted point of view and the subjective inner drama. Because the novel is essentially the record of Strether’s inner life and involves his thoughts, feelings, and responses, the internal or subjective narrative passages are very much like actual thought processes — syntactically eccentric, full of sudden echoes, memories, and clusters of connections and associations. While James cannot be said to be practicing the “stream of consciousness” technique of later writers, his style certainly suggests a foreshadowing of that technique.

Going outside Strether’s inner drama, however, the reader still encounters some difficulties in the matter of dialogue and description. The most significant “action” of the novel occurs in a series of scenes where the characters discuss the problem at hand; this is conveyed to the reader through the dialogue. This dialogue-the elaborate conversational fencing of James’ sophisticated characters — may be somewhat involved and complex, but it should be noted that it always advances the action of the narrative and is never simply ornamental. Jamesian dialogue, moreover, is not usually very individualized from a standpoint of diction; concerned more with his characters’ meanings than their words, James tends to provide them with a uniform level of diction, choosing not to discriminate among them in that matter.

Although The Ambassadors is not dramatically constructed to the extent that its plot is delivered entirely by dialogue, James does make use of the dramatist’s technique as if staging a play: setting, placement of characters, arrangement of acts and scenes. The novel is essentially scenic; many chapters are like scenes in a play where the stage is set and characters moved on and off, but the substance of the scene is always recorded through Strether’s consciousness. The same is true for the remarkable descriptive passages in the novel: James renders set scenes as if they were paintings come alive, but again, these are always filtered through the central consciousness of Strether. “James wrote The Ambassadors for the attentive reader,” writes Leon Edel, “and a reader capable of seeing with him — and accepting his painter-sense, his brushwork, his devotion to picture and to scene and above all his need to render this in a highly colored and elaborate style.”