Heroic Isolation: Rowland Mallet, Lambert Strether, and the Experience of Estrangement

One of Henry James’ outstanding qualities is that, to a greater extent than with most writers, the only way to really understand him is to simply read a great deal more of him. This statement takes one thing largely under its assumptive stride, that is that there is something to understand, something suggested and promised by, but not contained within, his immaculate and elegant prose. Again, to a greater extent than with most novelists, with Henry James it is safe to say that the real story unfolds not fully in the light thrown off by the explicit story-telling; no matter how elaborate or complete the narrative web, there is always something beyond it, a greater significance that we are pointed to by a constant inability fully to explain to ourselves, at least within its own terms, the story we are reading. Taking Roderick Hudson from the earlier years, and The Ambassadors from the later, we can trace a certain evolution in the way James handled the themes that pervaded his work as well as his life, namely, disengagement, isolation, difference. Comparing, in these two novels, the portrayal of this resigned but not fully explicated isolation, each comes to shed an enormous light into the hidden recesses of the other, and onto James’ larger project as a writer of fiction.The central characters of these two books compare in interesting ways. On a certain surface Roderick’s Rowland Mallet and The Ambassador’s Lambert Strether are quite different. For example, in their respective relations to the opposite sex‹an important aspect of character in analyzing James’ portrayal of isolation‹the two men appear to have quite different histories. Though he is twenty years younger than Strether, it is significant that Mallet has never married. We are given, on the very first page of the novel, the gossamer-thin reason that upon meeting the “golden fruit” that his cousin had married, he had “then and there accepted the prospect of bachelorhood.”(RH, 49) When his cousin dies, leaving this woman again marriageable, Mallet’s “fancy”, oddly, dies a “natural death”(49). Strether, on the other hand, has married; but, having married very young, he is, at fifty-five, a long-time widower. (The circumstances of Strether’s marriage, and the deaths of his wife and son, “stupidly sacrificed”(TA, 114), sound a little like the plot-line of a James short story.) This detail of Strether’s extra-narrative past is striking for the very fact that it is somehow rather incongruous with, and irrelevant to, the Strether that we come to know within the narrative; his former status as family-man is mentioned only once in the entire book, and were it not for the fact that, by the end, it’s so hard to imagine, the reader might easily have forgotten. In the details, these men have ostensibly different histories of relations with women; what is often so wonderful and so uncanny about reading James, though, is his way of overwhelming these ‘details’ with the subtle strength and extraordinary vivid-ness of presentation. These men, even despite Mallet’s supposed romantic feelings for Mary Garland, and Strether’s ‘understanding’ with Mrs. Newsome of Woollett, are most distinctly given to us as men who have had no particular attachment to the opposite sex. Within the context of the nineteenth-century novel, this fact alone signals a kind of difference in them; they stand out as lone figures in a world of pairs. Connected in a certain way to this apparent estrangement from women is the fact that both Mallet and Strether, despite being the very differently-situated characters that they are, start out at the beginning of their respective stories in the same vague malaise. Rowland, not-yet middle-aged, is experiencing a subtle crisis; bored and restless, he says to Cecilia, the woman for whom he once forswore all others: “I want to care for something or for somebody. And I want to care with a certain ardour; even, if you can believe it, with a certain passion.”(RH, 53) A little further on we are told: “[Mallet] had frequent fits of melancholy, in which he declared that he was neither fish nor flesh nor good red herring.”(RH, 58) Despite the jocular and cheerful “good red herring”, the meaning in this sentence is rather serious. Strether’s ‘malaise’ manifests differently, and ultimately I think more interestingly, in that, rather than it being stated at the outset, it rather dawns on Strether as the novel unfolds. He is in the “afternoon of his life”, and so there are not so many obvious causes for his feeling that something is missing. And yet this is exactly what he does feel with increasing lucidity as he falls further and further under what is presented to us as the intoxicating spell of Bohemian Paris. With characteristic Jamesian obscurity, Strether articulates his unhappiness to himself as the slow realization of not having “lived”. Again, despite differences in detail, both men are sketched almost as though they were the same character at different ages; they are both, more or less, malcontents in search of a missing piece, and they both take up a cause to occupy themselves. In comparing these two men, it is valuable to look closely at what it is James gives each of them to ‘handle’, and the ways in which they acquit themselves, (or not), of their charges. Mallet’s ’cause’ is, of course, Roderick, the man responsible for the statuette of “Thirst”, the “pretty boy”(RH, 59) that strikes Rowland as so “exquisitely rendered”. To Rowland’s complaint of profound ennui, Cecilia has replied: “What an immense number of words… to say you want to fall in love!”(RH, 53) On seeing the statuette of a “naked youth” in her courtyard, Rowland is immediately “absorbed”, lost in contemplation of such “perfection”; it is as if he has fallen in love on the spot. But this is Henry James, and so we are anything but sure of what exactly he has fallen in love with. James has hinted already at the fact that Rowland is something of a frustrated artist himself: “It seemed to him that the glow of happiness must be found either in action of some immensely solid kind on behalf of an idea, or in producing a masterpiece in one of the arts… As it was, he could only buy pictures and not paint them…”(RH, 58)So our Mallet is someone who, unable to produce anything himself, essentially buys someone to produce for him. (This reminds us very much of Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians, who, unable to do anything to advance the cause of women’s rights herself, buys Verena Tarrant to do what she cannot.) But, (as in The Bostonians), the terms of the transaction are anything but clearly outlined, his relation to his ‘acquisition’ anything but straightforward. James presents to us a man fallen under a spell, not so much the spell of Roderick the individual, but of Roderick the idea, the specimen of youthful, beautiful masculinity endowed with the power to create sublime art. The strange way in which Rowland subsequently ‘falls’ for Roderick’s betrothed, Mary Garland, indicates further that what he actually falls in love with, what he seems to desire, is Roderick’s essential, virile heterosexuality. What is so poignant in James’ representation is that Rowland seems to lack self-awareness, a lack reflected in the totality with which he gives himself over to his prodigy. The particulars of Lambert Strether’s case are slightly different. The first obvious difference is that he does not himself fall upon his ’cause’ the way Mallet does in Cecilia’s courtyard. Indeed, at Strether’s ripe old age of fifty-five, he is not, in the sense that Mallet is, consciously in search of anything. Strether’s cause is imposed upon him by Mrs. Newsome, who has asked him to go to Paris and bring her son home, where the family business, as well as the New England lass Mamie, await him. In short, Strether is to fetch Chad back from his liberated life in Paris to the world of responsibility represented by Woollett. Woollett is where Strether has spent the greater part of his own rather disappointing life, and it is there that his own responsibilities abide, in that he is, we gather, engaged to, as well as employed by, the fearful Mrs. Newsome. But as Strether reaches Paris, and even before he finds Chad, we find him falling, entranced, under the same kind of spell as Mallet, only here it is represented, as I have already mentioned, by the sense of life he awakens to in Paris. Upon Strether’s arrival in that city, as he is reading the first four of Mrs. Newsome’s many letters‹the idea of correspondence figures so prominently in this novel and betrays so much‹James writes of him: “It was the difference, the difference of being just where he was and as he was, that formed the escape‹this difference was so much greater than he had dreamed it would be; and what he finally sat there turning over was the strange logic of his finding himself so free.”(TA, 112)Just as Rowland is stunned by the statuette before he is stunned by its creator, so Strether is dazzled by the culture and beauty of Paris before Chad enters on the scene. And almost as soon as Chad does make his entrance, it becomes even clearer that the dynamic of Strether in Paris will not be conducive to his mission of ‘diplomacy’:”Chad looked unmistakably during these instants‹well, as Strether put it to himself, as he was worth. Our friend had a sudden apprehension of what that would on certain sides be. He saw him in a flash as the young man marked out by women; and for a concentrated minute the dignity, the comparative austerity, as he funnily fancied it, of this character affected him almost with awe.”(TA, 167-8)From the minute Strether arrives in Paris then, the sense of his duty to Woollett is undercut by a spontaneous, almost subconscious realization of his limited agency in his own life. All indications are that his life in Woollett is something that he has settled for rather than actively sought; as the novel progresses, Strether articulates his admiration for Chad as stemming from the latter’s knowing “how to live”. In the same way that Rowland falls under Roderick’s spell, Strether seems to fall in love with a vague notion of masculinity, autonomy, and satisfied heterosexuality that Chad so splendidly represents. For all their similarities however, Mallet and Strether strike us as very different in one important regard. I have already mentioned that Rowland seems to lack self-awareness, and consequently spares nothing of himself in his relationship with Roderick. The question of Strether’s self-awareness is a good deal more complicated; he never articulates his desire to himself under our watchful gaze, nevertheless, (and again we are struck by James’ ability to overwhelm detail with sheer force of psychological representation), there is a tone in Strether’s often elliptical inner dialogue that suggests a deeper self-knowledge than that we are direct witness to. Halfway through the book, after his ‘errand’ has begun to run away with him, he reflects upon the consistency of his correspondence with Woollett: “… he… wondered if he hadn’t really, under his recent stress, acquired some hollow trick, one of the specious arts of make-believe. Wouldn’t the pages he still so freely dispatched by the American post have been worthy of a showy journalist, some master of the great new science of beating the sense out of words?”(TA, 301)Strether is quite aware that he has begun to deceive the Newsomes, and in his reflections on why, there are constant hints at something “deep and dim”(364), an “obscure truth lurking in loose folds”(394). At one point, after the Pococks have descended, as Strether waits in Sarah’s hotel room for her to appear, James writes:”… he breathed from day to day an air that damnably required clearing, and there were moments when he quite ached to precipitate that process. He couldn’t doubt that, should she only oblige him by surprising him just as he then was, a clarifying scene of some sort would result from the concussion.”(376)While Strether may not articulate exactly what it is that needs ‘clarifying’, the impression we get is of someone who knows himself, and has made a kind of peace with that knowledge, even though it estranges him, to a certain extent, from the world. Strether’s admiration for Chad is very different in nature from Rowland’s obsession with Roderick, and though both men are in similar situations, Strether distinctly gives an impression of greater self-containment; this detail of his character quite beautifies the novel’s central story, that of a man who, not only recognizes his nature too late, but also profoundly accepts the recognition. There are no violent deaths at the end of The Ambassadors, simply Strether, sailing back to Woollett, where we are sure there is nothing for him anymore, (where we are pretty sure there wasn’t much to begin with), but where he will probably live out the rest of his days a scribbling bachelor. The endings of these two novels, though vastly different, achieve in many ways the same large effect, which is to say, neither Rowland nor Strether find any kind of fulfillment; but whereas Rowland’s loss is a matter of thunderstorms and mighty cliffs and beautiful corpses, Strether’s is all quiet resignation and retreat. In the muted tragedy of the end of Strether’s story, James is portraying the same subtly cruel and unjust world he does in all of his novels, but here without the almost vengeful touch of a melodramatic death at the end. In the alternate resolutions presented in Roderick Hudson and The Ambassadors, we sense James, himself a scribbling bachelor, trying to come to terms with his own estrangement from the world; in the latter book’s absolute virtuosity, we can’t help but feel he was, in his own way, ultimately victorious.