The Beast in the Jungle: Essay Q&A
1. What insights about “The Beast in the Jungle” are contained in Henry James’s notebooks?
James first mentions the germ of the idea that later became “The Beast in the Jungle” in a notebook entry on February 5, 1895. He considers writing a story containing the theme of “too late,” in which two people meet too late in life and are left to contemplate what might have been had they met earlier. He envisages that they would meet only to part or to suffer in some way, perhaps with one of them dying. But as he tried to sketch out the basic premise of the story, he was not happy with it and even thought there was not much in the idea. None the less, the idea of “too late” stayed with him, and on August 27, 1901, he made an entry in his notebook that is a clear summary of the story he was to write within the next year or so. He emphasizes the idea that the man confides his belief that something will happen to him in the future to a “2d consciousness,” who must be a woman who helps him see the truth. She has always loved him but he has never realized this. At first she is “tender, reassuring, protective,” then she is “lucid” as she begins to fully understand him, then later, she sees the full truth. Still later, after her death, he sees the truth for the first time: “She has loved him always—and that might have happened. But it’s too late—she’s dead.” It is when he finally realizes that she loved him that, according to James’s notebook entry, “It must come for the READER, thus, at this moment.” This comment reveals much about James’s technique in the story; the reader should realize the truth exactly at the same moment that Marcher himself does, which explains why James always presents May’s emotions in a somewhat oblique manner, never making her feelings absolutely explicit, and also withholding for as long as possible the final realization of what the “beast” was, thus keeping the reader guessing.
2. Discuss some of the occurrences of irony in the story.
In the context of “The Beast in the Jungle,” irony is a discrepancy in how a situation or a behavior is understood. The real meaning or the truth differs from what one or more characters believe it to be; there is also an incongruity between what the character expects and what actually happens. There is irony in the fact that John Marcher spends much time congratulating himself on being selfless, on not imposing his preoccupation with the coming “beast” on others, but in fact his expectations about the beast color everything he thinks and does. He believes that when he is with May, he does not surrender to what he calls “egoism,” because he takes her out frequently to the opera. But the truth is that his obsessive thoughts about his portentous fate prevent him from perceiving her feelings for him or feeling anything for her beyond the affection of friendship. It is ironic that what the situation calls for is the very thing he is unable to recognize or do.
There is irony in May’s suggestion when they first meet at Weatherend that what Marcher describes about his future suggests “the expectation—or at any rate the sense of danger, familiar to so many people—of falling in love.” The irony is that the “beast” Marcher unknowingly awaits is not falling in love but the failure to fall in love; it is not the experience of life suddenly altered and transfigured by love, but on the contrary, life deadened by the inability to recognize love in another or to feel it oneself.
There is also irony in the fact that Marcher expects a big momentous event in the future, but all the time this event is creeping up on him slowly in the present, and then finally happens without him even noticing it. The irony is that the beast is right under his nose, so to speak, but he never has the perceptiveness to become aware of it until the knowledge of it is too late to do him or May any good. This is a kind of tragic irony in which the main character is unable to avert his fate through a lack of self-knowledge; when he finally does gain knowledge, it comes too late.
3. Is “The Beast in the Jungle” a timeless story, or is it rooted solely in its own time and place?
Anyone who is used to reading modern short stories and is unfamiliar with Henry James’s work may encounter a shock on reading “The Beast in the Jungle.” The sentences are ornate, the dialogue oblique, and the pace as leisurely as could be imagined. This is prose that needs to be read slowly and savored. It is a work of its era in the sense that James evokes the setting and culture of the upper reaches of late-Victorian or Edwardian society in pre-World War I England. This was a time when the proprieties regarding relationships between men and women were very different from what they are today. In his book Henry James, Bruce R. McElderry Jr. notes that James grew up in a “formal society” that has long since vanished. “Because his stories deal so largely with that society, with its conventions, its circumspection, and its circumlocutions, there is for many readers a tea-party atmosphere that seems trivial and archaic” (p. 17). McElderry’s book was published in 1965, and his comments may seem even more applicable today. The modern reader is struck by the formality and restraint with which Marcher and May converse with each other, even when they have known each other for years. They speak by indirection. Also, the reader might well feel that May unconsciously perpetuates Marcher’s failings by adopting his point of view rather than challenging him to live his life more fully in the present, as opposed to obsessing about the future. In a sense, she is one side of what in modern jargon is often called a “codependent” relationship in which she allows him to remain in the very state of mind that is undermining the potential of a relationship that she so much wants to come to fruition. If this aspect of the story—the fact they never seem to speak to each other in a direct, simple fashion—seems archaic to a modern reader, “The Beast in the Jungle” remains relevant and timeless in the sense that human psychology does not change. Is as easy today for an individual to get lost in
mental worlds far removed from the present moment as it was in 1903, when James published his story. The need to respond in the “now” rather than from a mental construct that one has invented to shield oneself from the reality one does not want to face could have been taken from one of today’s popular books about relationships and self-improvement. 4. What use does William James make of imagery of fire and light in “The Beast in the Jungle?”
James uses imagery of fire and light to symbolize knowledge and love. Light is associated with May Bartram and the role she plays in John Marcher’s life as a bringer of knowledge. When Marcher first meets May at Weatherend, her face and voice illuminates his memory about the circumstances under which they had met many years ago, “like the torch of a lamplighter who touches into flame, one by one, a long row of gas-jets.”
In chapter IV, when May is ill, Marcher sees her eyes as “beautiful with a strange cold light.” As she approaches him at the crucial moment, trying to get him to understand the truth, “her wasted face delicately shone . . . it glittered almost as with the white lustre of silver in her expression.” As they stand facing each other, “her face shin[es] at him.” At this point, even though she is ravaged by her illness, she is transfigured by love, and it shows in the light in her face. Marcher senses some meaning in this light that emanates from her: “Her words, if they meant something, affected him in this light—the light also of her wasted face—as meaning all.” The light is a beacon to him—if only he could catch its meaning.
Much later, after May’s death, when illumination does come to Marcher, it is expressed in imagery of fire rather than light. After Marcher sees the expression on the face of the grieving man in the cemetery, the sight of the man “named to him, as in letters of quick flame, something he had utterly, insanely missed, and what he had missed made these things a train of fire.” The meaning of the man’s face “flared for him as a smoky torch.” This is an illumination that sears the soul. Fire burns away untruth but it also consumes Marcher in the process.
5. Can “The Beast in the Jungle” be seen as a ghost story?
The answer to the question of whether “The Beast in the Jungle” can be read as a ghost story is probably yes, since Henry James himself appears to have thought of the story in this light. When the story was reprinted in The Novels and Tales of Henry James in 1909, it was coupled with “The Altar of the Dead” as a story that dealt with what James called the “quasi-supernatural,” and he included the story in his volume of ghost stories. In his preface to the 1909 edition of the story, James describes Marcher as a “superstitious soul.” James explains that Marcher can find nothing in his experience of life that meets the criteria he has mapped out as belonging to the “beast”; nothing that he can see as “either a damnation deep enough” or “bliss sublime enough” to satisfy him. Taking James’s own words as a cue, it seems as if Marcher is looking for something to happen to him that comes from beyond the natural world, a visitation from heaven or hell that will tell him whether he is to be damned or saved. He does after all emphasize more than once the “strangeness” of the anticipated event. And like all good ghosts, the “beast” remains elusive while retaining its ability to fill the imagination and create a sense of apprehension and dread. As Marcher confesses to May, “I appear to myself to have spent my life in thinking of nothing but dreadful things.” It is for this reason that Marcher is presented in the story as a haunted man. He uses the term to May when they first meet at Weatherend, speaking of “the apprehension that haunts me—that I live with day by day.” Marcher has indeed seen a ghost, but it is the creation of his own mind and has no reality other than that.