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This article examines the high degree of parallelism and repetition that characterizes dialogue in Henry James's late fiction and considers both the function of such "consensual talk" in the context of James's novels and its implications for understandings of speech in the novel, more generally. Taking The Ambassadors (1903) as its primary case study, the article argues that dialogue's consensual structure is used to express a fantasy of reciprocity that is at once broadly attributable to the novel's speakers and to James himself, stung by the failure of his theatrical work and the lack of commercial uptake of The New York Edition. In particular, it draws on his 1905 lecture, "The Question of Our Speech," in which James conveys his aspirations that "conscious, imitative speech" could serve a unifying function in the social realm. Yet closer analysis of The Ambassadors reveals the extent to which James's theoretical ideals are at once dramatized and ultimately discredited in his fictional work. In the process, the article models a rhetorical approach to interpreting character dialogue, which treats it as an expressive affordance of the author as well as the character. In this way, it frames novelistic speech as less an instance of mimesis than poiesis and Jamesian dialogue as just one example of the ways fictional conversations get "made."


Henry James, character dialogue, modernism, the novel, twentieth-century American literature

EARLY IN Henry James's novel The Ambassadors (1903), shortly after the protagonist, Lambert Strether, makes the acquaintance of Maria Gostrey, the two take a stroll [End Page 221] through the streets of Paris. As they walk, they talk; in the excerpt of their conversation below, Maria speaks first:

"You're doing something that you think not right."

It so touched the place that he quite changed colour and his laugh grew almost awkward.

"Am I enjoying it as much as that?"

"You're not enjoying it, I think, so much as you ought."

"I see"—he appeared thoughtfully to agree. "Great is my privilege."

"Oh it's not your privilege! It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with yourself. Your failure's general."

"Ah there you are!" he laughed. "It's the failure of Woollett. That's general."

"The failure to enjoy," Miss Gostrey explained, "is what you mean."

"Precisely. Woollett isn't sure it ought to enjoy . . ."

(A 25)

What is striking about this excerpt is not so much what Strether and Maria are saying (though the "low semanticity" of their dialogue is of interest itself1) but rather, how they are saying, especially the high degree of parallelism present in their exchange. Although the two characters barely know each other, it is clear that they have already become what Ruth Yeazell calls "verbal collaborators" (68). As they converse, each integrates the words of the other ("enjoy," "privilege," "failure") into their own responses, resulting in an ever-lengthening, if only ambiguously referential, locutionary chain. Even more interesting is that this pattern is far from exceptional. In fact, this phenomenon—what I call "consensual speaking"—is diffuse within James's fiction and in his later novels, in particular, which turn up copious evidence of this tendency for characters to, in Yeazell's words, "echo and qualify" each other's words (68):

"To lie 'for' her?" [. . .]

"To lie to her, up and down, and in and out . . ."

(The Golden Bowl 414)

"He has done everything."

"Oh—everything! Everything's nothing."

(The Wings of the Dove 99)

" . . . yet at the same time I see it as bearing you up."

"Oh it does bear me up!" Strether laughed.

"Well then as yours bears me nothing more's needed."

(A 47)

At times, this reiterative habit is taken to almost absurd extremes ("Kept her, on that sweet construction, to be his mistress?" "Kept her, on that sweet construction, to be his mistress"; GB 419). James, as if to indicate his self-awareness about this dimension of his writing, will occasionally employ the verb "echo" to describe his characters' conversational activity, as when Strether "could only after a moment re-echo Miss Barrace" (A 326).

Despite the ubiquity of this sort of consensual talk in The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, relatively little has been written about its [End Page 222] function within James's fictional universe2—a symptom, perhaps, of the relative lack of critical interest in character dialogue that this issue of Narrative aims to redress. A major exception has been Yeazell, who along with Leo Bersani has attended to many of the more idiosyncratic elements of Jamesian conversation. In her essay "Talking in James," she addresses the collaborative, highly concatenated nature of speaking in the late novels, noting that Strether's exchanges with Maria Gostrey give readers the impression that "they were not so much separate persons as parts of a single self" (68). It is an insight that lies behind David Kurnick's more recent study of the "performative universalism" in James's fiction: the fact (which he agrees has "largely escaped critical commentary") that James's "quite different characters" all speak more or less alike (215). (And, one might add, more or less unlike any other speakers, real or fictional.) Yet despite his suggestive analysis of the "striking verbal similarities that hold across the whole cast of Jamesian characters," his conclusion—that such "similarities" ultimately signify the characters' "shared purposiveness" and awareness of themselves as characters, engaged in creating a "larger fictional product"—is only one possible interpretation (215, 216). While I agree that the "stylistic indistinction" of the late novels points towards the intriguing possibility of style's "collectivism," Kurnick's next step, to attribute this "collective" impulse to the novels' characters, seems at once too utopian and too totalizing, since the purposes of characters within the texts appear more varied than this metafictional reading allows (216). The questions raised by the echolalic exchanges of James's speakers therefore persist. Why do the characters talk this way? What, to paraphrase the title of Kurnick's essay, does Jamesian conversation want? And how might centering dialogue as the subject of narratological inquiry—as the essays in this issue seek to do—make possible new understandings of a novelistic feature that has too often been taken for granted?3

This essay takes up these questions through an analysis of character speech in The Ambassadors. Rather than treat the text's idiosyncratic talk as driven primarily by character (in the manner Kurnick suggests) or as the result of authorial overreach—the kind of "bad dialogue" that Amy Wong explores—I propose instead to read it rhetorically: as an expressive structure, capable of conveying ideological and affective commitments that exceed the boundary of a single speaker. In so doing, I do not mean to suggest that conversation's arrangement in this (or any) text should be seen solely as the product of authorial intent; rather, my approach here remains indebted to the tradition of rhetorical narrative theory which, as James Phelan conceives it, involves less "an author . . . extending a multidimensional . . . invitation to a reader" than a "synergy occurring between authorial agency, textual phenomena, and reader response" (Narrative as Rhetoric xi–xii).

In the case of James's fiction, such a rhetorically oriented reading of character dialogue reveals both the extent of its stylization—conversation's "made-ness"—and the ideas that such style is being made to perform. In particular, I'll contend that the symmetrical and response-privileging structure of talk in The Ambassadors functions to convey a longing for the kind of reciprocity and consensus that remain elusive within the world of the novel. The possibility that James might have been especially invested in—or even personally susceptible to—such fantasies of reciprocity finds support in his nonfiction writing, which, like his novels, register a persistent fear of isolation. As [End Page 223] James's biographer Leon Edel reports, James once admitted that the "deepest thing" about him was "the essential loneliness of [his] life" (quoted in Edel 511). In his novels, such doubts about the feasibility of human connection are at once pervasive and more implicit. As Robert Pippin observes, James frequently "situates his characters in a social world where various uncertainties in any common form of life, and the profound and unstable dependencies . . . characteristic of modern societies, have made much more difficult . . . basic elements of mutual understanding" (147). It's a state of affairs that James has his character Van register in The Awkward Age, when he casually dismisses "the existence of friendship in big societies"—a comment that anticipates the similar criticism offered by James's contemporary Van Wyck Brooks, who would contend some fifteen years later that friendship couldn't survive the "vast Sargasso Sea" of modern America (AA 13; 149). But it also anticipates the more widespread acknowledgement among many modernist scholars of how regularly American writers of this period concerned themselves with the problem of endangered affinity: how frequently, in other words, their fiction reflects "a crisis in capacity for social solidarity at the public level, and emotional and sexual intimacy at the private" (Moglen 5). What this essay seeks to highlight is the extent to which this concern manifested not only thematically but also at the level of discourse—in the texture and textual arrangement of the novel's conversations, which cumulatively function to express a desire for what could variously be called mutuality, reciprocity, or consensus.

At the same time, however, it also seeks to situate James's particular deployment of conversation in its historical and literary context and to suggest that his strategic repurposing of talk was at once exceptional and exemplary of the forms of dialogic experimentation that emerged in the early twentieth-century Anglo-American novel, particularly in the subset of novels broadly categorized as modernist. If dialogue had been traditionally been treated as a subordinate element in the novel—a tool for developing character or advancing plot—analyses of work by canonically modernist authors such as Faulkner, Woolf, Joyce, Hemingway, and Stein suggest a divergent tendency to emphasize it as a poetic structure in its own right. It's a tendency that also surfaces, for instance, in the impossibly homogeneous and prolix talk of Absalom, Absalom!, the intensely lyrical "speech" of The Waves, the recursive diction of The Sun Also Rises, and the oddly unrevealing and redundant dialogue of "Melanctha," among other examples. Seen in this light, James emerges as one of a number of contemporaneous authors to "make" conversation in substantively new ways and for a previously unacknowledged range of aesthetic and communicative ends. Even more importantly, conversation—historically understood in terms of mimesis—emerges more forcefully as a work of poiesis, something not so much imitated as truly made.

What follows, then, is a close analysis of dialogue in James's novel, which also seeks to model an alternative approach to theorizing dialogue in the novel, and to showcase this method's critical payoffs. The key, I suggest, is a willingness to shift one's interpretive sights: to treat direct discourse as seriously as discourse in its indirect or free indirect forms; to attend to how characters say as well as what they say; and to consider what the general shape of speech in the novel might disclose—what ideas or ideals it might enact—that discrete utterances cannot. [End Page 224]

"The Question of Our Speech"

As Wong points out, James addressed character dialogue in his 1884 response to Walter Besant's "Art of Fiction," and he would return to the subject in his preface to The Awkward Age (1899), in which he laments readers' outsized and undiscerning appetite for talk:

"'Dialogue,' always 'dialogue!'" I had seemed from far back to hear them mostly cry: "We can't have too much of it, we can't have enough of it, and no excess of it, in the form of no matter what savourless dilution, or what boneless dispersion, ever began to injure a book so much as even the very scantest claim put in for form and substance."


It was not until 1905, however, that James extended both his critical and "fictional exploration[s] of vocal culture,"5 into the social realm, delivering a talk on the subject to the graduating class of Bryn Mawr (Jones 97). Entitled "The Question of Our Speech," the lecture, later published as an essay, makes an impassioned, pedantic, and frankly xenophobic plea for the restoration of linguistic standards, which James, recently returned to the U. S. after a twenty-year hiatus, found sadly deteriorated.6 In response, he exhorts the students to create a "virtual consensus of the educated . . . in regard to the speech . . . they profess to make use of," without which the "educative process" and the "imparting of a coherent culture," would, he claimed, "never get under way" (QS 6). To aid in the development of this educated "consensus" James proposes a program of verbal emulation and imitation: "Imitating, yes; I commend to you . . . the imitation of formed and finished utterance wherever, among all the discords and deficiencies, that music steals upon your ear" (QS 50).

Given the roughly coeval production of this essay and his late novels, it is tempting to assume this work of "verbal criticism" could be used to "explain" the intentions behind the conversational dynamics of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl.7 Indeed, so readily and regularly do characters in these texts take up the words of their interlocutors that it almost seems as if they are being made to model the verbal habits—the "conscious, imitative speech"—that James prescribed as the antidote to the many "discords and deficiencies" of fin-de-siècle American English (QS 50). Of course, to suggest that James's novels be read merely or even primarily as illustrations of his theories would be to do them a disservice: his fiction is hardly that didactic. Yet what does, as James might say, beautifully survive in the contemporaneous novels, more than any of the essay's specific recommendations, is its conviction that speech plays a crucial role in the creation and cultivation of community. Framed in James's terms, they exemplify the belief that "the question of our speech" is always already a "question of our relations with each other" (QS 10).

In this sense, James's essay makes explicit an ideology implicit in later fiction like The Ambassadors, whose protagonist, Lambert Strether, is almost fanatical about sustaining verbal consensus. Indeed, when considered in light of James's critical statements, the character Strether might emerge less as a biographical surrogate for James8 than an ideological avatar, a representative or "ambassador" for his stated aspirations [End Page 225] for discourse—even if, in the novel, they manifest in substantially transmuted form. If James's stated goal in this lecture is to achieve a nativist cultural consensus, Strether, by contrast, appears more invested in attaining a personal or affective one. Put another way, one could say James's public ambitions for spoken language manifest in The Ambassadors as Strether's far more private ones. This kind of movement is very much in keeping with what scholars like Gavin Jones have seen as a greater trajectory within James's fiction whereby "questions of speech" are increasingly "related less to the public problems of social and political identity than to the radically private problems of individual consciousness" (97).

Yet it's clear that the "questions of speech" raised by the novel cannot be explained solely with reference to Strether's "individual consciousness." Although it's true he and Maria Gostrey are principally "responsible" for the drive toward consensus in the novel, such consensus-seeking is also a more unconsolidated and less character-centered activity. In other words, it is not only in the response-oriented structure of Strether and Maria's exchanges that we can locate evidence of a consensual impulse but in the presence of syntactic and lexical features so textually diffuse as to be unattributable to individual speakers. In this sense, speech—much, as Sharon Cameron has noted, like consciousness—resists being psychologized within James's novel.9 Instead, I'll suggest, James uses it as a vehicle for the expression of more collective drives and desiderata—in this case, a longing for reciprocity that, if only obliquely expressed in the novel's content, is emphatically broadcast by its dialogic structures. If direct discourse, then, has long been identified as an area of difficulty within James's fiction—and an element of the novel about which James himself had conflicted feelings—it is also treated, at least in the world of The Ambassadors, as a potential avenue of rapprochement.

Wishful Speaking in The Ambassadors

Strether's conversations with Maria exemplify the diegetic interest in consensus-building typified by the conversation excerpted at this article's start. Violating as they do both narrative economies and conversational ones,10 the readerly lessons to be learned from such protracted yet content-poor exchanges is that speakers in The Ambassadors are less interested in communication, per se, than the sheer fact of interaction: in achieving what Bronisław Malinowski describes as "phatic communion," that "type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words" (285). Arrayed across the "mere laid table of conversation," as Strether puts it, neither he nor Maria can condone "forsaking the board" (A 19).

So anxious is Strether, in particular, to access this sort of intersubjective ideal that he will routinely subordinate his own voice to achieve it. When Maria labels Mrs. Newsome a "swell," for instance, he is only too ready to take up her term ("Oh yes, she's rather a swell!") (50). A page later, Maria offers a further revision ("She's just a moral swell") and Strether "accepted gaily enough the definition": "'Yes—I really think that describes her'" (52). It is only one of innumerable instances in which Strether will eagerly "accept" the definition of another. From the opening pages of the novel, readers see widespread evidence of Strether's citational habit, his practice of off-handedly [End Page 226] quoting others: "he's 'notoriously,' as he put it himself, not from Boston" (73), "it had been 'given him,' as they said at Woollett" (95), "Chad . . . was more than ever, in Miss Barrace's great sense, wonderful" (127), "what you call a parti pris . . ." (230). Most famously, he will adopt Little Bilham's characterization of Chad's relationship as a "virtuous attachment" and thus quite literally take "his" word for it (112). Yet Strether's apparent deference to the discourse of others should not conceal what seems to be a competing desire: to have his own discourse acknowledged by others. In the novel's third book, we find Strether "waiting . . . to get back from [Maria] in some mirrored form her impressions and conclusions," not unlike Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl, who waited "till [The Prince] spoke again with a gesture that matched" (A 86, GB 291). Short of "mute communication"—a mysterious prospect that is regularly held up as the sine qua non of intimacy in James's fiction—such "mirroring" or "matching" is often treated in the late novels (however mistakenly) as the greatest possible proof of fellowship (GB 139).

Even as Strether perceives conversation with Maria as a means of generating intimacy, however, the novel suggests talk can also serve to forestall it and allow a character like Strether to shelter indefinitely in the realm of purely verbal relations. Particularly illustrative of dialogue's ambivalent status as at once a form of flirtation and deferral is Strether and Maria's shared allusion to Waymarsh's "sacred rage." On the one hand, the phrase, which "was to become between them, for convenient comprehension, the description of one of his periodical necessities," would seem to testify to the pair's affective synchrony (41). Indeed, James is hardly alone in evoking a "private phraseology," as Maggie Verver calls it, to telegraph two characters' affinity (GB 359). One thinks of Proust's lovers Swann and Odette, whose phrase, "Do a cattleya,'" having become for them "a simple verb which they would employ without thinking when they wished to refer to the act of physical possession . . . survived to commemorate in their vocabulary the long-forgotten custom from which it sprang" (331). Like "the sacred rage," to "do a cattleya" becomes a shorthand, even a shibboleth for the couple, the sort of "esoteric vocabulary understood only by the members of a closed social world" (Yeazell 70). Yet while Swann and Odette's metaphor served to "commemorate" their love ("elle le commémorait"), such as it is, Strether and Maria's can only ever gesture obliquely toward the possibility of it. Unlike Proust's couple, James's never share a kiss, never consummate their flirtations.11 Their phrase, in other words, does not "signify" or memorialize an event—it is the event. Behind this brief exchange, as behind perhaps all of Strether's conversations with Maria and her continental double Marie, thus lies another aspiration: that shared language might be not just the byproduct of mutual understanding, as in Un amour de Swann, but its major impetus. In this sense, the exchanges with Maria would seem to enact a central fantasy of Strether's: that language is sufficient to engineer intimacy; that verbal intercourse might not just substitute for but actually be superior to its sexual variant, Proust's "act of physical possession." Put another way, one could say that Strether is engaged in wishful speaking: an attempt to realize, through talk alone, the "possibility of any mutuality" to which Pippin, for one, claims James was similarly committed (148).

Complicating this conclusion, however, is the fact that such wishful behavior is not confined to Strether and that alongside this psychological explanation for the novel's [End Page 227] distinct locutionary tendencies dwell other, less characterologically determined ones. Attesting to the diffuseness of this fantasy is the fact that it undergirds James's novels beyond The Ambassadors, particularly the later novels, in which characters place (or misplace) similar hopes in speech. One thinks especially of John Marcher in "The Beast in the Jungle," for whom sharing the "real truth" with May Bartram is enough "to constitute between them a sensible bond," or The Awkward Age's Mr. Longdon, for whom "talking on a bench" is the greatest intimacy to which one can aspire and who imagines, like Marcher, that a shared "secret" or "hope" could qualify as "[the thing] that will have drawn us together" (CS 747; AA 147, 247). That Strether invests so much in his verbal rapport with Maria only to turn down the possibility of a physical or conjugal one at the end suggests strongly that when he extols the need "to live," he may mean less "to live sexually," as Peter Brooks has suggested, than to live emotionally, intellectually, relationally (114). Certainly, there is an undercurrent of desire animating his and Maria's tête-à-têtes. Yet the fact that Strether, like Longdon and Marcher, similarly settles for talk alone suggests that James's male protagonists make a habit of imbuing speech with magical sublimating properties.

While it is Strether, then, who may most prominently embody this attitude, there is also evidence that the fantasy of verbally orchestrated intimacy is more widely distributed both within The Ambassadors and beyond it, in the fiction James produced shortly before and after. Indeed, the dialogue-heavy novels that followed James's foray into theatre seem to be constructed with this ambition in mind: represented speech becomes increasingly elliptical, vague, and incomplete, thus inviting (even demanding) further elaboration or interrogation by the fictional listener.12 In The Turn of the Screw, for instance, the governess's conversations with Mrs. Grose are characterized by a disproportionate number of open-ended statements whose construction, even when not in interrogative form, necessitates that the interlocutor supply the missing object: "But not to the degree to contaminate—" (11), "But aren't they all—?" (10), "Then you have known him—?" (11), "That was the great reason—" (48), "You leave him—?" (65), "Then in spite of yesterday you believe—" (75). It is as if James had discovered a means of dramatizing, through the syntax and punctuation of speech, the hunger for response—for the experience of "with-ness"—that haunts many of the subjects in his later fiction.13

And, perhaps, haunted James himself. One can't but think here of the author's own desire for public recognition, his "disappointment in the marketplace as well as the world of letters" (Edel 396). As Edel puts it, "he had felt so many times in his life that the world did not want his art and did not recognize his genius" (684). In 1908, still stung by the disastrous reception of Guy Domville, James was doubly shocked by the poor sales of The New York Edition: "The non-response of both sources," he wrote to his agent James Pinker, "has left me rather high and dry" (quoted in Edel 663). It may be no coincidence, then, that some of his most biographically proximate characters seem similarly sensitized to the experience of non-response. Thus it is not only Strether, the "perfectly equipped failure," but his earlier iteration Mr. Longdon, who expresses this note of frustration: "I was no success as a young man. I mean of the sort that would have made most difference. People wouldn't look at me" (A 40, AA 20). "Well, we shall look at you," Vanderbank responds (AA 20). The worst fate, [End Page 228] such evidence implies, is that of being not looked at, not responded to. It is almost as if James, in his fiction, anticipated the idea Bakhtin would formulate in his later theories: that "for the word (and consequently, for a human being) there is nothing more terrible than a lack of response" (Speech Genres 127).

And nothing more desirable, perhaps, for James's fictional subjects than the presence of one. It is in this light that it becomes possible to suggest that the synchronicity among James's speakers is best explained neither as a stylistic provocation nor as a reflection of James's "social Utopianism" (Rowe, Other 17). Instead, it might most plausibly be read as the manifestation in textual form of certain aspirations—to recognition and reciprocity—with which James himself identified. Indeed, by portraying a linguistic landscape at once so conspicuously uniform and so uniformly unnatural, James essentially signals his intention to use dialogue as an expressive rather than simply "reflective" device. At a moment when many of his contemporaries in American letters were engaged in reproducing real dialects,14 James was focused on inventing one: on using dialogue to communicate aspirations the plots of his novels would fail to sustain.

"Making Out," "Taking In," "Keeping Up": James's Aspirational Phraseology

To understand both the impetus and ends of James's un-mimetic talk, however, requires a closer look at its mechanics. For what we find is that dialogue in The Ambassadors is marked not only by its degree of symmetry but also by a number of equally estranging and revealing mannerisms. In addition to the textual phenomena discussed above (echolalia, compulsive citation, concatenated speaking) there are other recurring features of character discourse whose idiosyncrasy and contravention of verisimilitude seem to require explanation. Most distinctive, perhaps, is the use of phrasal verbs, those compounds of verbs and modifying particles that are so typical of Jamesian conversation. In The Ambassadors alone, characters regularly take in, take out, take from, or take up; come in, come on, come out, come down, or come up. Historically, the linguistic category has been of great interest to lexicologists, from Samuel Johnson to James's near-contemporary William Pearsall Smith, who noted that "there is hardly any action or attitude of one human being to another which cannot be expressed by means of these phrasal verbs" (Smith 254).15 Yet they have not roused the interest of literary critics, despite the fact that such collocations pullulate in his fiction, sometimes to almost comical extent. Take, for instance, Maria's introductory gambit to Strether:

If you'll only come on further as you have come . . . you'll at any rate make out. My own fate has been too many for me, and I've succumbed to it. I'm a general guide—to "Europe" don't you know? I wait for people—I put them through. I pick them up—I set them down . . . I take people, as I've told you, about.

(A 25–26) [End Page 229]

Here, Maria describes her activities almost exclusively by means of these verbal formulae: in terms of "coming on," "making out," "waiting for," "putting through," "picking up," "setting down," and "taking about." In this case, the primary function may be self-mockery—Maria's deflation of her importance as a "general guide." But given the frequency with which these constructions appear in characters' speech, it seems likely they have another, less ironic functionality. If Smith, for one, praises the expressive power of such compounds, James's characters seem to take advantage of the degree to which they don't express: their capacity to leave events and actions deliberately underdetermined. What does it mean, after all, for Maria to "pick people up," "set them down" or "put them through"?

Even more important than whether readers understand, however, may be the implied presumption that other characters will. Like the "language of enigmatic praise" in which James's characters speak or the "high generality of [their] diction," these constructions have the benefit of both heightening the impression of intimacy and, just as importantly, allowing the greatest possible margin for error between speakers (Yeazell 69, Levenson 15). In this sense, the phrasal verbs that recur in The Ambassadors may be designed less to mean than to place-hold: to signal the characters' desire to map out some maximally neutral, and thus easily shared, verbal terrain. Thus, these formulae seem to attest less to the impossibility of referential meaning (as others have suggested)16 than to the characters' affected confidence in its certainty: that is, their commitment to preserving the illusion that so inevitable is successful signification that their conversations can sustain even the use of such thin and barely meaningful signifiers.

Similarly suggestive in this regard is the characters' use of what might be called pseudo-idioms: codified expressions that have been tweaked just enough to destabilize their clichéd status. Indeed, it can be difficult to locate within The Ambassadors a cliché that hasn't been emended in some way, whether by the insertion of an adverb ("as if you wanted one immediately to know the worst") (24), a prepositional phrase ("We've tired out, between us, her patience," "there at any rate it is") (187), or some other qualifying clause ("He can bear it—the way I strike him as going—no longer," "You're looking, this morning, as fit as a flea," "I don't do it, for instance—some people do, you know—for the money") (247, 192, 186, 26). As with phrasal verbs, the goal of these pseudo-idioms seems less to "mean," than to demonstrate mastery of language designed to maximize ambiguity. By deploying, with only the most minimal revisions, these agreed-upon phrases, characters showcase their capacity for non-pragmatic discourse—their facility with talk designed to obfuscate rather than communicate in the interest of safe-guarding the promise of eventual signification.

The manifest and undifferentiated status of what would otherwise seem to qualify as highly idiosyncratic linguistic traits has several implications. On the one hand, this feature of the novel would seem to dramatize James's ideas about language's dynamism and its social power. It is not, after all, until after speaking with Little Bilham that Maria can declare him to be "one of us!," a conclusion that Strether takes less as an indication of tribalism than proof of language's consolidating potential; to his mind, "a quick unanimity between the two appeared to have phrased itself in half-dozen remarks" (83). From Strether's perspective, then, Maria and Chad, within the space of [End Page 230] just a "half-dozen remarks," are on the verge of realizing the sort of "virtual consensus" that James called for in his lecture, and that Strether himself so doggedly pursues.

Yet readers will recognize that such discursively produced "consensus" is hardly an unmitigated good; indeed, The Ambassadors makes clear the costs (personal as well as ethical and political) of privileging unanimity—namely, the attenuation of difference. "In Little Bilham's company," Strether notes at one point, "contrarieties in general dropped" (83). Much the same, however, could be said of almost any character in the novel, though it is Strether who seems most inimical to contrariety. Confronted with or, in James's words, "sinking . . . up to his middle in the Difference," Strether inevitably strives to neutralize or assimilate it (Complete Notebooks 28). Of particular concern is his failure to register the fundamentally divergent stakes of seeking to minimize, say, locutionary difference—as he does in his conversations with Maria—and suppressing other expressions of diversity. This impulse is particularly evident during his encounter with the potentially "unfamiliar phenomenon" of Marie de Vionnet (129). Though he anticipates a "femme du monde," once they begin to talk, Strether is almost immediately reassured: "she—oh incontestably, yes—differed less; differed, that is, scarcely at all—well, superficially speaking, from Mrs. Newsome or even from Mrs. Pocock" (129). Indeed, by the end of their conversation, he is convinced of her "common humanity": "she did come out, and certainly to his relief, but she came out as the usual thing" (129).

As the novel eventually reveals, however, this assessment could hardly be less precise: Madame de Vionnet does "differ"; she is not the "usual thing." And the implication is that Strether, desirous of finding something "usual," has simply persuaded himself that he has: aided in this effort by both the epistemological generosity of his claims and by the kinds of verbal formula ("come out") which function to muffle the slightest intimation of difference. Significantly, they do the same for Madame de Vionnet, a native French speaker who nonetheless talks the same strangely idiomatic English as the novel's Anglophones: "It's just there that, since you've taken it up and are committed to it, it most intensely becomes yours," she explains to Strether during their colloquy in Notre Dame (183). It is only when Marie's ontological "difference" asserts itself—when she is exposed as un-virtuous—that her verbal difference suddenly does, too: then, for the first time in the novel, Marie begins to speak French. This change, Strether reflects, had the "odd" effect of "fairly veiling [Marie's] identity, shifting her back into a more voluble class or race to the intense audibility of which he was by this time inured" (312). Though he may couch it in heavily qualified, almost incomprehensible language, what is clear in this moment is that Marie is being punished for her difference, demoted, in Strether's mind, from a privileged class to a "more voluble" one and from an embodiment of a cosmopolitan ideal to a representative of a single "race." By choosing to synchronize her shift in language with her shift in "class" and "race," James implies the price of consensus might be conformity—of identity and ethnicity as well as ideology.

In this way, The Ambassadors reveals how radically the fantasies of community Strether harbors are out of touch with its lived reality, as represented not only by the repressive (and openly satirized) regime of Woollett, but also by what the concluding chapters show to be the perhaps equally exclusionary society of Paris. Far from [End Page 231] endorsing the consensual ideal James endorses in his speech, then, The Ambassadors reveals itself to be an illumination of its perils. In straining toward consensus, Strether has imagined it where it did not exist and overlooked it where it did—most notably, between Marie and Chad. Indeed, the novel goes so far as to suggest that Strether's pursuit of mutual understanding might be nearly as dubious (ethically, epistemologically) as Woollett's policy of isolationism. To accept unconditionally the words of another may be to promote a superficial understanding, but it is also to minimize the chance of reaching a more profound one. Enamored as Strether is of what Barthes calls "the discourse of others," he fails to vet such discourse adequately for truth (S/Z 184). "Do take it from me," Little Bilham assures Strether, who of course does (112). But at some cost. For in adopting Little Bilham's characterization of Chad's relationship as a "virtuous attachment," Strether recuses himself from the task of having to characterize it for himself. In this sense, the phrase becomes not only a "simplifying rubric" but a stultifying one (Weinstein 131).

James's fiction seems to significantly complicate the assertions of his criticism by suggesting that codified language may have less of a unifying effect—serving to galvanize community—than an enervating one. This idea is epitomized, perhaps most poignantly, by an early passage in the novel, when Strether refers twice in the space of one paragraph to the death of his "little dull boy" (61). As becomes clear, this epithet has served to perpetuate a possibly false image of his son, who may be quite different than this memorializing language would imply.17 It is only when he belatedly interrogates the cliché, however, that Strether begins to consider what it may have disguised: "It was the soreness of the remorse that the child had in all likelihood not been dull—had been dull . . . mainly because the father had been unwittingly selfish" (61). In this light, it is significant that James himself relied on a similar technique in the wake of his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson's suicide, when he "came to rest in a conventional and distancing judgment—'fundamentally tragic being!'" (Ozick xx). However incidental, such an anecdote reveals the affective power rhetorical formulae may have held (however unconsciously) for James, as for his characters, and the corresponding risk of self-delusion run by those who use or rely too heavily upon them.

In "A Question of Our Speech," James makes clear that uncritically adopting such linguistic formula entails epistemological as well as ethical risks. At one point, for instance, he asks his audience

to take it from me, as the very moral of these remarks, that the way we say a thing, or fail to say it, fail to learn to say it, has an importance in life that it is impossible to overstate—a far-reaching importance, as the very hinge of the relation of man to man.

(QS 21)

That even James's hyper-conscious speakers may fail to think about "the way [they] say a thing" is a testament to the difficulty of securing this kind of interpersonal "relation": of achieving, even in fiction, the kind of compact James envisions in his criticism. Considered in this light, one could say that the dialogue in The Ambassadors functions as a kind of authorial backchannel, allowing James at once to dramatize a longing for verbal and social consensus and to editorialize, covertly, about its failure: to insert the [End Page 232] kind of omniscient commentary that had come to seem, in this post-realist moment, hopelessly outmoded. Thus, it becomes clear that so-called "direct" discourse has the potential to function as a richly complex mode of indirect communication. And thus, the question of James's speech is revealed to be also, and perhaps inevitably, the question of novelistic speech. [End Page 233]

Elizabeth Alsop

Elizabeth Alsop is an Assistant Professor at the CUNY School of Professional Studies, where she directs the B. A. programs in Liberal Studies and Communication and Media. Her book Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction, which examines the function of character dialogue in British and American modernist writing, is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press.


1. A term originated by linguists, and used by sociologist Fred Davis, to describe the communicative function of clothing; see Fashion, Culture, and Identity p. 5.

2. Although Sharon Cameron and George Butte, among others, have written extensively about the intersubjective orientation of consciousness in James—the prevalence of "supposedly separate characters with supposedly separate consciousnesses, which then dominate each other"—their focus has been primarily on interpenetrating thought, rather than speech (Cameron, Thinking 29).

3. As Bronwen Thomas points out in her book, Fictional Dialogue (2012)—one of the few full-length studies in the field—fictional talk remains something of a topic non grata among scholars. "While considerable critical attention has been paid to the representation of speech and thought in narrative," she observes, "the emphasis of late has swung much more in favor of thought than speech" (1).

4. See James's preface to The Awkward Age for the entirety of his remarks, which include the complaint that readers slaver for dialogue but only of a very particular and, to his mind, degraded and formulaic kind: "One had seen good solid slices of fiction, well endued, one might surely have thought, with this easiest of lubrications, deplored by editor and publisher as positively not, for the general gullet as known to them, made adequately 'slick'" (106).

5. James himself "trace[d] his ideas of language back to the early 1880s, just prior to his creation of The Bostonians" (Jones 83).

6. In no small part, James implies, due to the effects of immigrants on the English language. See Edel for a description of his trip to New York in 1904, during which he felt himself to be in the "torture rooms of the living idiom'" (quoted in Edel 613).

7. As Gavin Jones notes, "we should not forget that James's late style coincided with his most outspoken remarks on 'the question of our speech,' which place linguistic speculation firmly in a social and cultural context" (97).

8. A commonplace of James criticism. As Edel puts it, like The Awkward Age's Mr. Longdon "or the unnamed narrator of The Sacred Fount" before him, "the curious New England 'ambassador' Lambert Strether would re-embody a new, still slightly bewildered novelist" (477).

9. See Thinking in Henry James, in which Cameron argues that in James's novels "consciousness is disengaged from the self" and "reconceived as extrinsic, made to take shape—indeed, to become social—as an intersubjective phenomenon" (77).

10. Here, I am relying on the maxims underlying Paul Grice's "cooperative principle," especially as pertains to "quantity" in conversation: "Make your contribution as informative as required" and "[d]o not make your contribution more informative than is required" (26).

11. This is very much in keeping with Forster's famous observation that James's characters "are incapable of fun, of rapid motion, of carnality . . . their clothes will not take off" (Pattern 427).

12. See Cynthia Ozick, who argues that after "the 1895 crux" of Guy Domville, James "would never again write the kind of novel he had written during his earlier years, before he began playwriting" (Ozick xiv, Edel 434). Instead, as Edel points out, he now "imported the stage into his novels" (434). See also Kurnick's Empty Houses.

13. On the subject of "punctuation's ability to convey meaning beyond a grammatical or syntactical function," see Elizabeth Bonapfel (79). The other reference here is to the propensity of characters in James's later fiction to seek others willing to "watch," "wait," or "act" with them. It is a desire that reaches an apotheosis in "The Beast in the Jungle" (1903), which is centrally about Marcher's hope that May should "watch with" him (CS 746).

14. See Jones, who argues "[l]ate-nineteenth-century America was crazy about dialect literature" and the vocal difference it dramatized (1). The result, as he argues in his first chapter, was that writers attempted to record and "redact an astounding variety of cultural voices" (4).

15. Johnson, for his part, bemoaned the difficulty of indexing this "kind of composition, more frequent in our language than perhaps in any other," in which we "modify the signification of many verbs by a particle subjoined" (12).

16. I am thinking here of what one scholar calls Bersani's "dismissal of referential meaning in the book," but also of Cameron, who argues that in The Golden Bowl "speech is emptied of significant implication" (Sabin 96, Cameron Thinking 85).

17. For more on the way tropes in James's fiction work to promote magical thinking, see Yeazell, who argues that metaphors act as "ways of mediating . . . dangerous knowledge," or Kurnick's discussion of the mystifying effects of the image of Kate's analogy of Milly to a "dove" (Yeazell, Language 39; Kurnick, "Jamesian Style" 219).

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