The mystery at the heart of Henry James' The Ambassadors, solved.

All about fiction.
Oct. 31 2007 4:28 PM

Is It a Chamber Pot?

Nope! A century-old literary mystery, solved.

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Henry James' The Ambassadors.

Ever since the 1903 publication of Henry James'The Ambassadors, critics and readers have puzzled over a literary mystery that has come to be known as the Woollett Question. What, everyone from E.M. Forster to David Lodge has wanted to know, is the "little nameless object" manufactured in Woollett, Mass.? The case went cold at some point in the 1960s, but earlier this week it was reopened … and cracked.

In James' late and longiloquent novel, our protagonist is Lewis Lambert Strether, the middle-aged amanuensis and aspiring fiance of Mrs. Newsome, a wealthy widow who presides over the fictional manufacturing town of Woollett. Strether is traveling from Boston to Paris, where he hopes to track down Mrs. Newsome's son, Chad, the wayward heir of the family's booming industry. Along the way, he is befriended by a young American abroad, Maria Gostrey, who soon inquires what, exactly, it is that they manufacture back in Woollett.

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"It's a little thing they make—make better, it appears, than other people can, or than other people, at any rate, do," says Strether. When prompted to explain further, he again equivocates, describing the business as "a manufacture that, if it's only properly looked after, may well be on the way to become a monopoly." Impatient with Strether's "postponements," Gostrey asks him whether the article in question is something improper—perhaps even unmentionable?

"Oh no, we constantly talk of it; we are quite familiar and brazen about it," Strether hastens to reply. "Only, as a small, trivial, rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use, it's just wanting in—what shall I say? Well, dignity, or the least approach to distinction." The manufactured item is, he concludes, "vulgar."

Her interest piqued, Gostrey ventures three guesses: Clothespins? Saleratus? (That is, baking soda.) Shoe polish? No, no, and no. Not until the novel's final chapter will Strether offer to name the "little nameless object." But at this point in the narrative, Gostrey, whose romantic overtures have been rejected by Strether, no longer cares to know.

Generations of readers have felt differently: One critic after another has speculated about what small, vulgar, everyday item might have been manufactured at the turn of the century in Massachusetts. In the 1920s, several James exegetes took the low road, arguing that Strether's protestation notwithstanding, the Newsome family was most likely turning out an unmentionable. In his 1925 book, The Pilgrimage of Henry James, Van Wyck Brooks guesses that the object is "a certain undistinguished toilet-article," by which he means a grooming or personal hygiene product. In Aspects of the Novel (1927), E.M. Forster insists that we can't know what the "little thing" is, then facetiously claims that it is a button hook—a doohickey used for fastening one's garments, gloves, or boots.

In David Lodge's 1965 campus novel, The British Museum is Falling Down, Brooks and Forster's mildly titillating line of interpretation is updated by Camel, a grad student writing a thesis on sanitation in Victorian literature, who suggests that the thingamajig is a chamber pot. One might desire to trust the judgment of Lodge, who is the author of both a novel about James (Author, Author, 2004) and a nonfiction book about his research into James' life and letters (The Year of Henry James, 2006). But in interviews, Lodge has taken pains to point out that Camel's scatological theory was advanced only "half seriously."

Other Jamesians have taken the high road, preferring to believe that Strether's reluctance to name the object has nothing to do with bodily functions, but instead reflects the expatriated novelist's own "self-distancing from American business life, whose vulgarities were much criticized by English writers," as Christopher Butler puts it in his notes to the 1985 Oxford University Press edition of the novel.

In "The Meaning of the Match Image in James's The Ambassadors," a 1955 essay in the journal Modern Language Notes, for example, Patricia Evans asserts that the thingamabob is a safety match—which, she claims, would explain why James jokes at one point in the novel that Mrs. Newsome's daughter's unpleasant smile was "as prompt to act as the scrape of a safety-match." The hermeneutics of suspicion is contagious: Two years later, the same journal published "Time and the Unnamed Article in The Ambassadors," in which R.W. Stallmann, also relying on what might or might not be fraught similes and allegories in James' text, claims the object "is—or ought to be—a clock." To be precise, an alarm clock, which "represents a way of life the opposite of Europe's."

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