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  • The Jamesian Oedipus and the Freudian Moses: Image, Word, The Later Style, and The Ambassadors
  • David L. Smith

During the famous garden party scene in Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903), a group comprised of the freethinking Parisian Miss Barrace, the expatriate American artist Little Bilham, and the novel’s itinerant hero Lambert Strether—who has been sent to retrieve the prodigal Chad Newsome from what his mother in Woollett, Massachusetts presumes is the clutch of a European temptress—discusses Paris’s subversive effects on Americans abroad. The subject of the conversation is Strether’s traveling companion Waymarsh, a dour, puritanical Connecticut lawyer who staunchly resists Paris’s seductions. Miss Barrace has taken the intractable American under her wing and is delighted and amused that her charge refuses to give in. Desiring to be further entertained, she comments:

“Oh, I hope it’s lasting!...But he only, at the best, bears with me. He doesn’t understand—not one little scrap. He’s delightful. He’s wonderful,” she repeated.

“Michelangeloesque!”—Little Bilham completed her meaning. “He is a success. Moses, on the ceiling, brought down to the floor; overwhelming, colossal, but somehow portable.”


Qualifying this suggestion of Waymarsh’s portability, Miss Barrace adds, “Certainly, if you mean by portable…looking so well in one’s carriage.” Yet geographical mobility does not equate, in Waymarsh’s case, with a change in cultural or moral position. “I show him Paris, show him everything,” she says, “and he never turns a hair” (125). [End Page 1]

The metaphor produced by this exchange, Michelangelo’s imposing, larger-than-life statue of Moses, the Jewish lawgiver, which adorns the tomb of Pope Julius II in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, introduces a paternal authority figure of mythic stature into the heart of The Ambassadors.1 At first glance, this seems a rather ironic introduction given that fathers are otherwise notably absent from the novel and that the story of intercultural conflict is, as Leon Edel argues, driven by the opposing desires of two mothers, the puritanically American Mrs. Newsome and the seductively Parisian Marie de Vionnet (537). Yet the appearance of the iconoclastic, law-giving father, which occurs in the critical moment between Strether’s consciousness-altering vision of the sculptor Gloriani and his speech enjoining Bilham to live life to the full, points up the crux of Strether’s dilemma: he is caught between a world of sensory perception that generates desires and mediates understanding of reality through material phenomena on one hand, and a world of abstract conceptuality that demands renunciation of sensory-induced desires and obedience to transcendent categorical truths on the other.

Translating this cultural conflict into psychoanalytic terms, I would argue that Strether’s tale can be read as an oedipal struggle: enamored of the maternal European imaginary, Strether struggles against the demands of the paternal American symbolic. But The Ambassadors offers readers an amended version of the conventional oedipal narrative, which reaches closure through renunciation of desire for the mother and identification with the father, by refusing to subsume the image into the word, the imaginary into the symbolic. Strether disrupts the trajectory of oedipalization by refusing to bow to the paternal will; however, he also refuses to remain enraptured with the maternal fantasy, suggesting that the novel does not simply reverse the oedipal narrative’s course and resolve itself back into the imaginary. In thus avoiding the post-oedipal sentence to the father’s version of reality and the pre-oedipal fantasy of uninterrupted pleasure, Strether achieves a subjectivity that resists psychoanalytic categorization. My ultimate interest, though, is not the state of Strether’s psyche but rather what his tale has to tell us and show us about the aesthetics and hermeneutics of James’s later style. By unpacking this narrative complication, I hope to demonstrate that James adapts the oedipal myth to illustrate a principle that characterizes his fiction and criticism throughout his career but that becomes especially pronounced in the major phase: “Every good story is...both a picture and an idea, and the more they are interfused the better the problem is solved” (“Maupassant” 537).

Although James was experimenting with...


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