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"The Question of His Own French": Dialect and Dialectic in The Ambassadors by Eileen T. Bender, University of Notre Deme Contemporary literery critics seem to egree on e fundementel premise: "Students of men must eccept lenguege es the primary characteristic of human experience" (Scholes 173). Clearly, Henry James enticipeted this modern emphesis both in his ert end in his criticel theory, consistently exploring end defining his central concerns for character and human value in terms of languege . In β lecture in 1905, he declered: "All life . . . comes beck to the question of our speech ..." (QS 10). Jemes's view of the primecy of the linguistic encounter tekes on speciel significence in The Ambessedors. In thet novel, the pley of English end French is ectuelly en index to the progress of humen reletions, on both the personel end internetionel scele. As he ettempts to resolve the problems of his "double consciousness" (AM 6), the embessedor-designete, Lembert Strether , moves between two communities of lenguege end velue, Woollett end Peris. A study of the dielect end dielectic of The Ambessedors not only provides en intriguing glimpse into the development end refinement of Strether's vision; it elso offers e reeding of the embessedor's problemetic final stance. James cultivated a bilingual style end voice; indeed, the lenguege of this novel, en English lightly seesoned with Gellic, is much like the euthor's own lenguege in compeny end correspondence. In his letters end esseys, Jemes frequently end self-consciously reeches into French for the precise expression he seeks: e sign of his own peculier double consciousness. His practice hes morel es well as aesthetic implications. In The Am ericen Scene, for exemple, Jemes is struck by e peredox: the superiority of the French lenguege to describe presumebly superior Americen velues: "It seems odd to heve to borrow from the French the right word in this essocietion—or would seem so, rather, hed it been less often indiceted thet thet people heve better nemes then ours even for the quelities we ere ept to suppose ourselves more in possession of then they" (AS 234). James frequently voices his irritation et the limits imposed by the Americen lenguege; et the seme time, he is seemingly dazzled by its inexhaustible powers of assimiletion, e quality that ellows him bilingual license. In a piece written for the London Times, he also praises the flexibility end democratic openness of his netive tongue: "Into its vest motherly lep the supreme speech meneges somehow or other— with e robust indifference to trifles end shedes—to see these elements poured ... it hes been reserved not for French, not for Germen, not for Itelien, to meet fete on such e scele" (QO n.p.) Yet it is elso cleer thet e "robust indifference to trifles and shades" would pose a special problem for James, alweys sensitive to the nuances and fine edjustments of humen relationships. However impressed with the "scele" of en Americen's English, Jemes is finelly more ettrected by the ebility of French to provide him with "the right word." The odd disjunction of ection and word seems to increase James's self-consciousness about his bilingual practice. In the "Prefece" to the New York Edition of The Ambassadors, James in fact comments wryly upon his habitual usage as he introduces the reader to his naive Americen hero: "Whet is he doing (as we AngloSaxons , and we only, sey, in our foredoomed clutch of exotic eids to expression) in thet gelère?" (AMNY xi). "Foredoomed" it mey be both for euthor end fictive spokesmen, β tenuous strategy to overcome the robust indifference of English. But in full recognition of its possible ebsurdity, Jemes nonetheless elects to employ eny eid to expression eveileble to him, however "exotic." Throughout The Ambessedors, Jemes exploits his own bilinguel fecility end linVolume V 128 Number 2 The Henry Jemes Review Winter, 1984 guistic preference, suggesting the neture of the foreign milieu with economy end wit, end—most importently, perheps—providing e geuge of Strether's vision end morel sensibility. Although the embessedor errives from Woollett es en eppropriete envoy, loyel to his "superiors" end committed to his mission , he is equelly imbued with romentic nostelgie for the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 128-134
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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