Cycles of failure in Murphy

Murphy was a character who lived for his own principles, until he lived for those of Celia then shortly thereafter he died. Cecelia represented the physical expectations of society and the moral contortions those expectations impose.

While Murphy lived for his own principles his physical representation was of poverty, which may be construed as failure, but his psyche was liberated, which may be construed as success except that he was dissatisfied. Once he compromised his principles he burned to death. Yet, had he not compromised his principles then his heart-throb, Celia, would constantly nag him. Life would be miserable because of nagging, or there would be the threat of constant dissatisfaction and death by depravation. It was a circular conundrum.

The author of Murphy, Samuel Beckett, shows readers continually, like the continual occurrences of circular motions in the book, that systems are set up and then they fail. In the beginning of the book Murphy had spent six months in a mew watching the sun go round and round, but the place had been condemned. He is tied in his rocking chair and rocking, a semi-circular motion, and distracted by a cuckoo-clock echoing “quid pro quo! Quid pro quo ! . .” or the reminder that life was a mercenary exchange. The cuckoo-clock “detained him in the world to which they belonged, but not he, as he fondly hoped” (Beckett 2). He gets the rocking chair to its “maximum rock” (Beckett 6) but then the phone rings, and worried that his landlady will complain he unties himself. Afterward he reties himself. From this beginning Beckett sets the premise that life is systems of exchanges and that choices must be made. By the end of the book Murphy’s exchanges and choices have failed.

Beckett implies that people are caught in the middle of universal cycles. In the beginning of chapter five, when Celia and Murphy have just moved into a new room, the floor and walls are described as tangible, but “the ceiling was lost in the shadows” (Beckett 64). In the very next page Celia wanted to “make a man of Murphy!” (Beckett 65) but Murphy’s definition of being a man was not succumbing to the forces of society, to be lost in the shadows. Which brings the story back or pushes it forward, in the circular conundrum.

Other characters in the book, Neary, Wiley and Miss Counihan have a perverse fascination with Murphy. “’Our medians,’ said Wylie, ‘or whatever the hell they are, meet in Murphy’” (Beckett 213).

Is their fascination because they were solidly concerned with but unable to explain their own existences? There was also Cooper, who never sat or took off his hat, as a metaphor for physical existence. For Cooper it was matter over mind. His task was to find Murphy. Cooper traced and circled in on, but never really did find Murphy alive. But, once Murphy went to his fiery death then Cooper did sit and go bareheaded. In fact he purposely sat on his hat. Cooper was a microcosm of systems and failures.

To show how solidly concerned with matter over mind Neary, Wiley and Miss Counihan were, in the end, after these three with the help of Celia, had identified the burnt remains of Murphy, Neary took out his check book to pay-off the matter. This totally brings the life of Murphy into the circle of the tangible and mercenary. To capitalize on the futility of that vicious circle is what happens to Murphy’s ashes.

Murphy had written that he wanted his “body, mind and soul . . . burnt and placed in a paper bag and brought to the Abbey Theater” (Beckett 269). The Abbey Theater was co-founded by William Butler Yeats whose poems and other writings were much composed around two main topics, mysticism and reform politics. Murphy’s ideal of life would tend toward mysticism, not literally but that he endeavored to live without regard to the physical world; and toward reform politics, because he so much resisted the oppression that working for money can manifest.

To complete the cycle of Murphy’s life, Cooper is to take the ashes to the Abbey Theater. On the way he stops to get drunk, gets in an argument, flings the packet into the face of his offender where “It bounced, burst off the wall onto the floor . . . ; and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits the vomit” (Beckett 275).

So, according to the life of Murphy, the sun and life go round and round, and it makes no difference if one lives for their own theories or the theories of society, all fail.

Redefining the beast in the jungle

Tags: Fear of happiness / being a coward / political formations

“Political formations” read about then discussed in class, and which Stone used as a tag for his post in regards to Halberstam, takes the focus away from “queer” as sexual orientation and places it on anything outside traditional “normative” behavior.

What is “normative” behavior? Who made it that way? Why is there a “normative” behavior? And, who allows this political formation to continue?

As Stone wrote, “I’m more curious as to why when calling failure a success when it shouldn’t be addressed as a failure at all.” At the end of the post, Stone posed an interesting question, which I paraphrase as: If failure carries negative connotation, are we reinforcing that when non-normative groups fail, it’s ok to fail, but being anything else than normal is unacceptable? In this way of political structuring only a very small percentage of the population will be socially correct.

The political structure of “normative” behavior is a failure for many members of society. The bigger failure is that society allows the structure to continue.

About Henry James’s novella “The Beast in the Jungle,” Bodonn wrote, “Marcher is disconcerted by [Bartram’s] actions, and begins to doubt his fortune.” At the end of the post Bodonn wrote, “Marcher’s meek, misguided motions . . . are proof of his fear of commitment, his fear of love.” A tag for Bodonn’s post is “being a coward.” Fear created by political structures is a social failure.

In my post about Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle,” I wrote, when recalling Marcher’s remembrance of his and Bartram’s first meeting, that “[Marcher] did nothing to pursue his desire, and instead he walked away.” The tag was, “fear of happiness.” Now I wonder if he was actually happy, but that he did not care to or was unable to act in a “normative” way.

Returning to political formations, the blog very interestingly, states “a culture or group of people that come to inhabit the world that are completely normal will inherently succeed even if it doesn’t really seem like they’re succeeding at all because once again, it’s the norm.”

This is so very interesting because a problem with normative behavior is that it does not necessarily equate to happiness. And vice versa. Non-normative behavior does not necessarily equate to unhappiness. Marcher and Bartram, whatever their reasons, chose not to marry yet they had a long standing relationship. At the end Marcher expressed deep grief, but would he have if he and Bartram had forced themselves into the constructs of normative behavior? Perhaps because of their individual and independent natures they would have ended up resenting married life. And, in resenting married life they each would have felt angst against the other individual. Had they of married and had children, then not only would they have suffered, but the children may felt the angst and also have suffered. Maybe a reason one or both Marcher and Bartram shunned a normative relationship, is because of childhood experiences with parents who detested the institution of marriage.

Another reason, as we discussed in class and in some blogs, are that, for reasons not made apparent in the novella, Marcher and Bartram were each content with their arrangement.

At the end of the novella Marcher is in great grief over what he may have done differently while Bartram was alive. But, that soul searching is not exclusive to “normative” relationships. When a loved one dies, agonizing over what would have, could have, should have happened is common.

Another aspect is that in “The Beast in the Jungle” Marcher is the protagonist, but Bartram was the stronger character. Not in the sense of the structure of the novella, but in the sense that she had a stronger intellectual and emotional constitution. The novella opens with Marcher’s observance of her guiding guests through a great home, she had the better memory, she was the one who succored whatever it was that Bartram thought would happen to him, she was the one who faced the greater consternation from contemporaries. She had had her man, her way. The novella does not indicate that she died unhappy.

The beast in “The Beast in the Jungle” may not be cowardice by Marcher. The jungle may be political formations of “normative,” and the beast may be lack of active resistance to those formations.



May Bartram, not a victim

In The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James because May Bartram was unwilling or unable to navigate a traditional path she died a premature death. Because John Marcher was unable to act, he lived in a grind of ennui.

In class we discussed Bartram as victim because Marcher kept company with her from the time she was 30 until her premature death. During those years of visits we talked about how he used her for his selfish purposes without committing to marriage. The victimization of Bartram argument has a lot of value, but I’m not completely convinced.

At the beginning of the story, which was set in London, there was a luncheon at Weatherend, where Bartram stayed. That was where she encountered Marcher for the second time. On their first encounter Marcher had shared an intimacy of his feeling of looming great life happening. “She had not lost the thread,” Marcher knew, “but she wouldn’t give it back to him, he saw, without some putting forth of his hand for it” (407). They talked and much of what he said, she contradicted. “He accepted her amendments, he enjoyed her corrections, though the moral of them was, she pointed out, that he really didn’t remember the least thing about her” (498) it is apparent that between Bartram and Marcher hers is the stronger personality. And while some things are learned about Marcher, very little is learned about Bartram, therefore he is more vulnerable than she.

Their first encounter had been ten years prior, when Marcher was 25 and Bartram was 20. The story was published in 1903, and seems contemporaneous. According to the Edwardian Promenade website[1] the average age of marriage for women around that time period was about 26 for men and 25 for women. Considering the average marriage age, Bartram at 20 would have been eager to find a potential husband.

When Marcher encountered her at 30 years old he learns that she had remained single. We know from the bit of history about their first encounter that she had been taken out into society, she “had been at Naples . . with her mother and her brother,” (498). From her introduction at the beginning of the story Marcher said even though she was less fortunate than some of her relations, she lived comfortably at Weatherend in the support of family. At Weatherend she showed people through the house, so she would have been in contact with many people. Why she was not married at the age of 30 is curious. One reason may be that she did not want to be married.

Soon after Marcher and Bartram’s second encounter Bartram’s family supporter died, and after that Bartram no longer lived in Weatherend, but thanks to an inheritance or endowment she was able to move to a small house where she lived independently.

Speaking from common sense, if a single woman in London or most other places, now or at any time, who had the finances to live independently wanted a husband she would have had one. More common sense points to this argument are that she was a handsome woman or Marcher would not have been attracted to her, and from the bits of conversation of Bartram,it is appreciated she is at least reasonably educated and intelligent, and agreeable company.

The years go on and Bartram and Marcher meet in places all over London. He buys her presents he cannot afford and takes her out in the evenings. These are not behaviors of someone disinterested.

Marcher was dependent on Bartram but she preferred independence. As she was dying she told Marcher, “’I would live for you still—if I could’” then “Her eyes closed for a little, as if, withdrawn into herself, she were, for a last time, trying. “But I can’t!” she said as she raised them again to take leave of him” (532). What had she been trying for but to be the woman Marcher wanted, but she couldn’t because she wanted to be true to herself.

Reconciling with her emanate death Marcher reflected, “[I] had lived by her aid, and to leave her behind would be cruelly, damnable to miss her. What could be more overwhelming than that?” (528).

The Beast, aberrant by nature, may strike in any direction. In the above interpretation of the text it was Marcher who was the victim. But, which ever one it was, or if they were both victims, Bartram and Marcher failed to successfully navigate paths to happiness.






Fear of Happiness

Before giving an explication from a short passage near the end of “The Beast in the Jungle” by Henry James, here is a bit of context.

From the beginning of Marcher’s history, when he encounters Bartram for the second time, Marcher already mourns time lost. Bartram reminds him that at their first meeting he had told her his secret desire for his destiny. Without their having been a spark of desire in Marcher it does not seem that he would have had or expressed his feelings. But he did nothing to pursue his desire, and instead he walked away. At their second meeting he guessed their first meeting at seven years prior, but she corrected him that it had been ten years. Noting that a decade had gone by and nothing had happened Marcher thought Bartram, “ever so much older” (497) and calculated that they were already old at 35 and 30. He sets himself for nothing to happen, that it was too late to change. Not to pursue one’s desires, not to evolve into life is a failure.

Helmer, in his first sentence wrote that Marcher “stands petrified in front of his future” (101). In the below excerpt he stands petrified behind his future. In being perpetually petrified, an element of Marcher’s Beast is fear of success and happiness.

Here’s the short passage near the end, it is from the last three sentences of part III:

“He stood for an hour, powerless to turn away and yet powerless to penetrate the darkness of death; fixing with his eyes her inscribed name and date, beating his forehead against the fact of the secret they kept, drawing his breath, while he waited as if, in pity of him, some sense would rise from the stones. He kneeled on the stones, however, in vain; they kept what they concealed; and if the face of the tomb did become a face for him it was because her two names were like a pair of eyes that didn’t know him. He gave them a last long look, but no palest light broke” (535).

At Bartram’s grave, Marcher “stood for an hour, powerless to turn away,” these eight words summarize Marcher’s inability to act on his own behalf for his own desires. “And yet powerless to penetrate the darkness of death” illustrate his refusal to overcome his inabilities. In this sense maybe he is not queer but instead is impotent. In reference to “queer theory” as described in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms another element of the Beast is the social and performative constructions placed on sexuality. In a world where sex and sexuality often dominate one’s conception of being a viable human, impotence is the ultimate failure.

“fixing with his eyes her inscribed name and date,” which are cut into stone, and since eyes are windows into the soul, is Marcher’s acknowledgment that his own refusal to act has been his impenetrable blockade. He created that stone in himself Marcher failed the ability to give and take love.

“beating his forehead against the fact of the secret they kept,” failing here because it wasn’t really a secret. Bartram knew and gave of herself and Marcher did not acknowledge or reciprocate. Beating his forehead as if searching for something, but there he had created only the emptiness of him waiting for someone to give to him.


“drawing his breath, while he waited as if, in pity of him, some sense would rise from the stones.” Instead of looking to himself for his happiness, or even to have taken the happiness Bartram offered, Marcher’s fear shuns what he most desires.

“He kneeled on the stones, however, in vain; they kept what they concealed;” kneeling, as if praying, but one cannot get to something without giving something. Concealed inside himself he locked up that most vital element of happiness, the vulnerability of loving back.

“and if the face of the tomb did become a face for him it was because her two names were like a pair of eyes that didn’t know him.” Stone hard, impenetrable protectionism. Because he refused to know himself she never could know him the way he wanted to be known. Marcher fails because he refused to see that happiness comes from giving to others what one has inside.

“He gave them a last long look, but no palest light broke.” All failure.

“What kinds of reward can failure offer us?” (Halberstam 3). Having failed to act toward fulfillment of himself and therefore Bartram, Marcher’s reward was the realization of his fear for happiness.






L0020546 Paul Richer, 'Gonflement du cou chez un hysterique'

We attend university with the well-advertised end goal of scholarly acclaim and financial security, and right there we fail because that advertised goal is not necessarily true. Ideals of success lighting our eyes we enter the halls of academia. And we fail. And we fail. And we fail. And all this failing takes a long time and insufferable energy and overshadows our worlds. A primary lesson studious student learns is that the “toxic positivity of contemporary life” is just that, toxic (3). Failing to realize that failure is at the core of learning and quality living is an ultimate failure.

Halbertsam shouts out echoes of failure with her statement that the “publish-or-perish pressure of academic life keeps [students] tethered to conventional knowledge production and its well-traveled byways” (6). The point of going to college is to learn to think in exceptional ways, and to do so for one’s self. To remain in the trenches of all academics that have gone before is not success. Paying kabillions of dollars in tuition and fees, and going into debt, perhaps for decades, to be a cut cookie is worse than failure, it’s ignorant. Not only for students but also for society.

Knowledge of these multiplicities of failings is what push us, if we survive, into the very scary world of acclaim. Being successful, for all its blown up reputation, is another failure. For having reached the pinnacle, there is ahead a void.

The mind that is not active atrophies. Entropic leveling, the universe’s way of returning everything to space dust, cannot be denied. We will not die and be stars twinkling in the great ceiling. Our lives, our dreams of glory and memorialization, will blow away in the wind.

Freely blowing in the wind is a satisfying ending, (especially compared to the confines of a life-sized box ten feet underground). Failure is awesome, it is not pretentious or false it is true. To be abashed and “too paralyzed to move forward” (Glasser) is the ultimate failure. Eventually we will have to budge, and hopefully that will be into “subversive [intellectualism]” (19). To “Revel in difference, Fight exploitation, Decode ideology, Invest in resistance” (21) is the pinnacle of failure.

If one were mostly successful, especially as defined in the advertised world, they would likely be totally boring or unbearably priggish. Thank failure for humor, character and fascinating discourse. Hallelujah. But, failure can be hard to deal with. So, well, damn it too.