Can you tell the beast from the jungle? Thoughts on transgressing arbitrary boundaries

I’ve always had a hard time with Henry James. I don’t think the mechanics of his writing is enjoyable, or even very good, and his plots tend to be in the vein of very rich white folks going “woe is me.” Engaging this text in means of failure is interesting to me because John Marcher seems to fit the ideals of success.

The easiest way to examine this story through the lens of failure is to approach it through queer theory – John and May are friends, and May essentially exists to let John appear as though he’s a “normal man,”  but I think we should examine it a little closer.

One of the things that has bothered me about James’ writing in the past is the way people project onto each other. There’s a really prime example of this at the end of chapter II, where the text reads (and I’m reading this as from the POV of John,) “Her silence, with the face she showed, was almost a confession.” Pg 49 Now for me, that is a hell of a lot to read into a silence and a facial expression. John thinks he can see into May’s mind. In this moment, John is transgressing the boundary between the self and the other.

Then, we can read a POV switch to may. “All this might be true, for she did look as if, unexpectedly to her, he had crossed some mystic line that she had secretly drawn around herself. Yet she might not, after all, not have worried: and the real climax was that he, himself, at all the events, needn’t. “You’ll never find out.” Pg. 49.

So in these two paragraphs, we get so many transgressions of the boundary between self and other. John sort of feels he’s reading Mays mind. Mechanically, we get a sort of blurry switch in POV between John and May. The text literally talks about John “crossing a mystical line.” Furthermore, we switch from exposition to dialogue without a tag. Sure this functions to whip up some drama and mystery, but it also formally shows us a transgression of boundaries between different types of story-telling- a seamless switch between one mode of telling and another.

I think seamlessness is the key in all these boundary transgressions in these two tiny paragraphs. Pov, mode of telling, and self and other are being transgressed, but without much attention being payed between switching from one to the other. To me, this exemplifies Halberstam’s presentation of queerness being defying arbitrary categorization. It’s about transgressing inorganic boundaries in favor of embracing messiness.

So how does this tie into the obnoxious class politics of this story? I don’t know. Maybe one of you can help me make some sense. Or maybe I’ll exercise passivity, and enjoy failing in my understanding of why it’s such a big fucking deal that John things he’s destined for something terrible.





Author: brownangelica12

I like things like words and people and octopi.

2 thoughts on “Can you tell the beast from the jungle? Thoughts on transgressing arbitrary boundaries”

  1. I agree with the idea that there’s so much that can be derived from a silent facial expression a la a picture is worth a thousand words and all that other stuff. In addition, I feel James’ writing is one-dimensional in the sense it’s about rich white males and the small struggles of their day to day live. However in this story, I think that actually aides us in terms of boundaries because of the two characters we have, there’s little that separates them other than being man and women. They’re obviously two different people but since we mostly only get Marcher’s point of view, we have little to draw from Bartram and the class struggles she experiences. We get glimpses into her thoughts, specifically when she states, “I don’t pretend it exactly shows that I’m not living for you. It’s my intimacy with you that’s in question” (50).(Words 150) Here we see Bartram expose herself to Marcher with the idea that the success of their relationship hinders on their ability to be intimate together. We talk about the failure of this novel being that Marcher doesn’t end up with the grand pay-off but is it just as equally about the failure of Bartram’s inability to cultivate a relationship with a very resistant man. We all know how the story ends but let me put it like this: What constitutes the success of a relationship? Is it the ability to be intimate with your partner on a regular basis? Is it just the ability to share an unwavering love for one another no matter what? Whatever you or I or Bartram and Marcher’s idea of a successful relationship is would be arbitrary. How this fits into class struggles would require more analysis. You could make the argument class is irrelevant in the story. The point is, I think it’s easy to question the reliability or Marcher as a P.O.V. but you also have to look at the little substance you get from Bartram and wonder if she’s using arbitrary lines as a way to judge the success or failure of their relationship.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s