Technically, the greatest trick of The Ambassadors is the hovering, deity-like presence of the Woollett matriarch and corncob pipe baroness Mrs. Newsome. She is the first person that Lambert Strether calls “wonderful.” He had better he is engaged – in some mercenary way – to marry her, once he has completed his engagement to drag her no account son back to Massachusetts to take over the chamber pot factory. (It’s a running joke in the book that no one ever specifies in what embarrassing way the Newsome’s made their fortune).
Mrs. Newsome never appears – the ambassadors in the title are her ambassadors. Yet she saturates the novel. She is constantly invoked. Decisions are made based on the presumed approval, or otherwise, of Mrs. Newsome. “Mrs. Newsome was essentially all moral pressure” (10.3).
At this point in the book, Strether has shaken himself free from Mrs. Newsome, which allows him to think such a thing, or later say that “’she’s all, as I’ve called it, fine cold thought’” (11.2), a bold thing for a novelist to openly declare, since it is might cast some doubt about characters more generally. But it is also Mrs. Newsome who is, to pull back a quotation from two days back, “deep devoted delicate sensitive noble.”
Martha Nussbaum, in her chapter on The Ambassadors in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), argues that she is “no mere caricature, but a brilliantly comic rendering of some of the deepest and most appealing features of Kantian morality” (179). Strether, by contrast, switches sides from Kant to Aristotle.
Nussbaum’s book is a defense of the ambiguities and complexities of Aristotelian ethics against its strongest competitors, Kant and Utilitarianism. Both Mrs. Newsome and Strether have strong senses of duty and integrity. Strether, faced with the complexities he discovers in Europe, finds his American, Kantian rules inadequate. “[S]he had taken all his categories by surprise,” “she” being the French countess, and thus Paris. I don’t believe James was really thinking of Kant when he wrote that line, but reading along with Nussbaum it is pretty funny.
“Woollett isn’t sure it ought to enjoy. If it were, it would.” (1.1)
Strether, at this point, is only a few pages into the novel, and only barely in Europe, and the old friend he meets in England actively hates “the ordeal of Europe” (1.2), but he is already experiencing subconscious doubts. All of this is before I learn that he is actually returning to Europe after a long, tragic absence, and before I have witnessed his perceptive powers, which are what really complicate things.
This is about as clear a statement of Nussbaum’s distinction between the improvised, perceptual Aristotelian ethics and the preset, reasoned Kantian system as I could find:
In the new norm of perception, unlike the norm of Woollett, there is a bewildering problem about authority. For if the ethical norm consists not in obeying certain antecedently established general rules, but in improvising resourcefully in response to the new perceived thing, then it is always going to remain unclear, in the case of any particular choice or vision, whether it is or is not correctly done. (Nussbaum, 182)
James is on the side of ambiguity and love stories. They confuse the categories. Strether is almost a superior being because of his James-like perceptive powers, but the plot is driven by his failures of perception, about himself and those around him. It is possible that many of those failures are deliberate; it is almost certain, by the end of the novel, that they, the failures, are right. Strether learns to fail ethically.