“That she, at all events might be recorded as having waited in vain- this affected him sharply, and all the more because of his at first having done little more than amuse himself with the idea. It grew more grave as the gravity of her condition grew, and the state of mind it produced in him, which he himself ended by watching as if it had been some definite disfigurement of his outer person, may pass for another of his surprises” (53).
In this passage Henry James demonstrates both Marcher’s narcissism, and his extreme detachment from human emotion. After learning about his friends deteriorating health, Marcher begins to agonize that she will miss out on witnessing “the beast in the jungle,” a goal he presumes has been at the forefront of both of their minds for the entire time they have known each other. Whatever event will take place, Marcher believes it will be of such importance that his friend will be “recorded as having waited in vain” for the rest of history. His further reflection that he had “done little more than amuse himself with the idea” shows that he feels he has failed his friend by not working harder to work out what this event might be. He sees her purely as a spectator to his life, and as a companion in his anticipation for the great event. What’s presented in the story is a friendship based purely around this confidence Marcher bestowed upon May all those years ago in Italy, and the subsequent wait. The consequence of that is a friendship where the two spend lots of time together, but there seems to be no real intimacy, hindered mostly by the fact that Marcher seems to separate himself as much as possible from any sort of vulnerability or emotion, which is also demonstrated in this passage with Marcher imagining his troubled state of mind as an outward disfigurement on his body, something attached to himself, but at the same time, somewhat alien to himself.
What this story and this passage present to us is Marcher’s failure to participate in the human experience by failing to open himself up to real intimacy. As noted in earlier in the novel, “His conviction, his apprehension, is obsession, in short, wasn’t a privilege he could invite a woman to share” (43), or, in other words, his obsession with his own possible fate prevents him from devoting himself to anything else. What Marcher missed when he missed the beast leaping was his last chance at love and intimacy with the woman who had stood by his side for years. As she presents herself to him as the person who has been his life companion, he is too focused on figuring out what she knows about his fate to realize what is being offered to him. The further detachment he seems to feel from her and the rest o the world after this instance only goes to prove that he has lost his chance to really experience what it is to live.