The “Beast” in The Beast in the Jungle

“The real form it should have taken on the basis that stood out large was the form of their marrying. But the devil in this was that the very basis itself put marrying out of the question. His conviction, his apprehension, his obsession, in short, wasn’t a privilege he could invite a woman to share; and that consequence of it was precisely what was the matter with him. Something or other lay in wait for him, amid the twists and the turns of the months and the years, like a crouching beast in the jungle. It signified little whether the crouching beast were destined to slay him or to be slain. The definite point was the inevitable spring of the creature; and the definite lesson from that was that a man of feeling didn’t cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger-hunt. Such was the image under which he had ended by figuring his life.” (43)

In this third-person narrative, James lets us into John Marcher’s innermost thoughts in regards to his life, the beast John is obsessed with, and his relationship with May Bartram. The “beast” is the object of John’s fear and premonition that carries him and May throughout the story. It’s a “secret” that is so dreadful May is the only other person that knows about it. James uses the words “secret” and “it” many times, possibly to add more drama to the story. Though “he really didn’t remember the least thing about her” (35) when they reunited after spending many years apart , John and May eventually grow and bond together. He courts her by taking her “to the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum, where, among vivid reminders, they talked of Italy at large” (42) and bestow her with gifts and his presence on her birthday while now considering her side of the relationship and how she may respond to this level of intimacy.

Though John and May become exceedingly close, marrying her is not an option for John. He fears what would happen to May when, not if, this beast makes itself known and come after him. Even though he “invites” May into his life, his fear kept him from being intimate with her. He’s is physically close to her, but he is emotionally isolated. His obsession of “something or other” or the best laying “in wait for him” pushes him away from May. Though May knows about the beasts in the jungle, he is not direct with her about it. He gives her just enough. Just enough to keep him satisfied and secure and we see this were James writes that John “had a screw loose for her, but she liked him in spite of it and was practically, against the rest of the world, his kind wise keeper, unremunerated but fairly amused and in the absence of other near ties, not disreputably occupied” (44). May reveals to John her awareness of what she is to him when she exclaims “I’m your dull woman, a part of the daily bread for which you pray at church. That covers your tracks more than anything” (46). It’s possible that May knows as much about the beasts as the readers of the novel.

The deep thoughts and the beast that James reveals to us is many pages of fear, obsession, and premonition.  What the beasts actually are is less important than the process of John’s life and how his obsession eventually causes him to fail.

James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle and Other Stories. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. Print.


One thought on “The “Beast” in The Beast in the Jungle”

  1. The agency of a word like secret in adding “drama to the story,” as you put it, held more weight in my mind than The Beast in the Jungle itself. I think of narrative function as the real goal of this story – as it is most of all a simplified and shortened case study on how to hold attention. The word secret is so excruciatingly redundant that it becomes opaque and an empty ornament by the end of the story. You can almost manage to remove it completely. The story waits and the fear and anticipation of the event become the life of the story. James writes about an it that doesn’t come to fruition or, to put in it terms of literature, a central plot device that doesn’t exist. That it ultimately what the story’s title and structure mean to me. Within the fabric of any story is a reason to pay attention, whether it be a tenebrism of form or an alteration/ending in plot. He provides neither and yet the story sustains itself. In my reading it is a testament to an artist’s ability to extend emotion.

    I also believe the internal obsession of John Marcher links the art of storytelling to the realm of psychology. Similar to Proust. In Swann’s Way:

    Always until then, as is common among men whose taste for the arts develops independently of their sensuality, a weird disparity had existed between the satisfactions which he would accord to both simultaneously; yielding to the seductions of more and more rarefied works of art…or to an exhibition of Impressionist painting, convinced, moreover, that a cultivated society woman would have understood them no better, but would not have managed to remain so prettily silent.

    This, in my mind, is the coupling art with society or of canon with experience, why we exasperatingly feel the way we feel when confronted by art or story and how similar it is to the way you attach yourself to another person. In the quote you used from page 42, Marcher takes his new love to art and talks about it along with politics and implies the distinction of high culture. Swann takes his new love Odette to artistic tastes and supposes that the details are all wrong, one to attraction and the other to acceptance and its forlorn independence. I find that high culture and relationships (and even failure) often pass by under the illusion of independence, as did the internal repression of Marcher.


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