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  • The Shopper and the Shopper’s Friend: Lambert Strether and Maria Gostrey’s Consumer Consciousness
  • Claire Oberon Garcia

Toward the close of the nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold described culture as emphasizing “becoming something, rather than having something” (208). Henry James’s The Ambassadors has usually been read as a description of the conflict between the values of what James called “the world of grab” and the world of culture. When I began my study of James’s 1903 novel, I set out to explore the relationship between the language of money and the language of art. I was struck, however, by James’s pervasive use of economic imagery in a novel that purportedly describes “a process of vision” (AM xxx). Although the novel has traditionally been read as one of James’s “international novels,” which describe the confrontation between European and American mores and values, my examination of James’s use of commercial metaphors and financial imagery reveals there is no tidy dichotomy between the money-grubbing values of industrial Woollett and the civilized, ideal values of European culture. Unlike The Golden Bowl, in which economic imagery is associated with Verver and the Prince, and Maggie’s language and imagery is stubbornly subversive of commercial rhetoric, The Ambassadors is characterized by economic language and imagery on all levels of the narrative. Despite the often disconcerting preponderance of money imagery in the text, it has received little critical attention to date, perhaps because The Ambassadors, as one of James’s most subtle and superbly [End Page 153] wrought novels, is so congenial to formalist criticism. But I believe this novel is more historically engaged than it appears. James wrote The Ambassadors when Western economies and culture were undergoing a period of transition. At the turn of the century, the American and European economies were being transformed from production to consumption economies. The American Gilded Age, with its economic boom and national fascination with great and sudden wealth, was waning. Advances in communication and distribution channels were creating a new mass market, and advertising was developing into a profession with affinities to the arts and sciences. Through its pervasive economic imagery, The Ambassadors provides an arena for the voices of competing value systems and exemplifies the effects of a nascent commodity culture on the human imagination and on human relationships. The Ambassadors goes beyond contrasting the values of a materialistic, capitalist culture with those of an older, more civilized society. Rather than claiming that a particular value system is superior to its “opposite” (European rather than American, aesthetic rather than economic, imaginative rather than social, etc.), the novel demonstrates that the economic, political, and historical forces that shape human consciousness operate in all aspects of human life and that, at the turn of the century, American evaluative judgments are all shaped by the influence of an emerging commodity culture. In the aftermath of the economic boom of the Gilded Age, the language of money provides a way of talking about fundamental issues of value: “For just as money is a universal equivalent into which all other commodities must be translated to establish their value, so also James uses economic language as the dominant code to fix the value of characters and ideas in his writing” (McCormack 1). The depiction of the relationship between Maria Gostrey and Lambert Strether, especially in the opening book, establishes the dominance of economic value as a trope for the rest of the novel.

I do not want to suggest that economic value structures are more fundamental than any other, but I do believe that at the time The Ambassadors was written the question of the value of money had a particular power over the American imagination. In William Dean Howells’s novel The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), which was written during the height of the Gilded Age, a character observes, “there’s no doubt but that money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry, of our age. It’s the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination” (60). At the turn of the century, the idea of wealth, the dynamics of capitalism, and the values of the emerging consumer culture all played a...

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pp. 153-171
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