Helmers’s Take on Time

In his article “Possibly Queer Time: Paranoia, Subjectivity, and ‘The Beast in the Jungle'” Matthew Helmers discusses the manner in which May Bartram serves as an anchor for John Marcher in a linear, and “normal” sense of time, rather than the sense of time he had been living in before, which was more easygoing, as it seemed completely unaffected by an unremembered past. Helmers’s reading of Marcher’s time as being “queer” is evidenced in the story by Marcher’s assessment of his meeting with May in Weatherend as being “the sequel of something of which he had lost the beginning” (James 34). The beginning mentioned is lost not only to Marcher, but to the reader as well, making the reader just as reliant on May to fill in the gaps of the past as Marcher is. Helmers argues that by transferring Marcher into this linear sense of time, he and May then act as a heteronormative couple. He explains this by stating: “This unification happens not through the play-acting of heterosexuality but through the ascription of both characters to a specific model of time, a model that the story unites with courtship, history, knowledge, and intersubjectivity”  (107). Marcher and May are not performing heterosexuality, but rather the interpretation of the two of them as a heteronormative couple is based on a shared history and their subsequent relationship that mirrors traditional courtships (their frequent outings to museums and the opera), and the passage of time that develops a deeper knowledge and understanding between the two.

As Helmers points out, May is also the one that brings the concept of the beast back into Marcher’s life, thus providing him not only with a past, but also with a future that he had forgotten he was anticipating. Subsequently, Helmers says, Marcher “commits himself to her so that he can watch and wait for the future event” (107). When he is reintroduced to his desire for whatever the future may hold for him, Marcher seeks to hold on to that desire and anticipation by committing both himself and May into both a seemingly heteronormative coupling, and an endless waiting game that only gets interrupted by the deteriorating health and eventual death of May. Thus May serves as a link not only to Marcher’s past and future, but also as a link to his desire. If May’s motivation for committing herself to Marcher is read as her desire for him, then her control of his sense of time and desire is seen as largely in her favor. This, however, makes her unfulfilled desire so much sadder, because, despite the amount of power she has over Marcher’s life, she was unable to gain the one thing she needed from him. By remaining so focused on his anticipation of the beast, Marcher remains ignorant of any desire May might have for him, and in turn any desire he might have for her, or for anyone. However, this does not mean that Marcher’s life is lacking desire, as he spends the entire story desiring to know what the beast may bring for him. His desire is ultimately unfulfilled as he realizes that his lot in life was to actually have a completely uneventful life, but that does not mean that desire was completely absent from his life.

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1 thought on “Helmers’s Take on Time”

  1. madisonduarte,
    My concluding thought after reading your response was: of course—Marcher’s beast was desire! I had interpreted it more as—an intimate relationship, love or romance. Desire is a different thing from my ideas altogether because it is defined as “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen”—an apt articulation of the situation here. Marcher’s desire was to find desire then. It only makes sense that he hadn’t apparently ever been able to identify what that was, or what shape it would take because he never had—or at least never mentioned—an intimate partner (how I read desire); but that isn’t what he wanted. His rapturous feelings of desire are for desire. Your analysis struck a chord. It drove me to look back at how the beast was originally verbalized to the reader by Bartram and it seems as though desire could have been the something “rare and strange” that would “overwhelm” him of which he had the “foreboding…conviction of” (39).
    In light of this clue or interpretation, it only complicates things worse for me perhaps. According to my definition, we already know that Marcher has a strong urge for this beast to show itself (“…wanting to have something”). He is bothered by Bartram’s impending death in fear that he will not find it out. My sudden snag though is on the second phrase in that definition: “…wishing for something to happen.” If we are to read Marcher’s beast as desire, then Marcher—simply wishing for something to happen, does happen. His desire for (the feeling of) desire is fulfilled. He felt it.???
    Helmers says, “Marcher’s commitment to Bartram always motions to a desire unfulfilled, a desire to fill in the gaps that lack fulfillment in the present moment” (113). So Marcher’s time spent with Bartram points towards looking at desire (wish for something to happen) as unfulfilled. But by spending time together (wishing for something to happen) they are fulfilling desire’s purpose; or in Helmer’s words “Marcher commits himself to Bartram’s system of time in order to perform a type of desire he lacks” (113). If we apply this reading of desire, I think that it means Marcher doesn’t actually want wish fulfillment as an actual tangible thing: sex, physical canoodling—with Bartram or otherwise—he simply wants to engage in wishing for something abstract to which he is unsure will ever materialize.

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