Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle

There are lots of self-centered characters in the Great Books. The Wife of Bath, Achilles, the professor in Uncle Vanya, Hamlet. They’re all self-centered but for different reasons. Some of them don’t think enough. Some of them think too much. Some of them act too quickly. Some of them don’t act quickly enough. John Marcher does these things in Henry James’ story about The Beast in the Jungle. The plot is simple. Marcher meets an old acquaintance named May Bartram. Once when he was younger Marcher had shared a confidential secret with May. His life was to be overshadowed by the notion that something dreadful is going to happen to him. He can’t say what it is because he doesn’t know. He just knows that he dreads the confrontation with this “Beast.” She promises not to tell anyone. She also promises to watch with him for the Beast that threatens to devour him (metaphorically) some day. They watch and wait together. And wait. And wait. Nothing happens. They wait some more. Still nothing happens. Finally they grow old and May dies. Marcher is left alone. At the end of his life he realizes that he should have loved May all along. So that was the Beast? Then he falls face down on her tombstone. End of story.

This version of the story captures the essentials of what happened to John Marcher. But telling it that way somehow misses the whole point. Outwardly Marcher lived a full life. He was well off financially and had many friends in the highest circles of society. He traveled widely. He went to art museums and attended the opera several times a month. He had a charming companion who invited him into her home in a fashionable part of London. But something was wrong with Marcher. Something was terribly wrong. In some ways he was like Kurtz in Conrad’s story Heart of Darkness. Kurtz was a civilized man living in a barbaric part of the world. He looked inside his own heart and found, to his horror, that he was hollow inside. Marcher was a civilized man living in a civilized part of the world. The solitude and “darkness” of Africa forced Kurtz to face his hollow life. Marcher wasn’t hollow. He was just full of Marcher.

All self-centered characters are afraid of something. The Wife of Bath was afraid of growing old. Achilles was afraid of losing his honor. Hamlet was afraid of letting down his father. Kurtz was afraid of civilization and what it would do to him. What was Marcher afraid of? The Beast. What was that? He didn’t know. Here’s a sample conversation between Marcher and May Bartram: There passed before him with intensity the three or four things he wanted most to know; but the question that came of itself to his lips really covered the others. "Then tell me if I shall consciously suffer." She promptly shook her head. "Never!" It confirmed the authority he imputed to her, and it produced on him an extraordinary effect. "Well, what's better than that? Do you call that the worst?" "You think nothing is better?" she asked. Nothing? That’s what Marcher was afraid of, nothing. May Bartram knew Marcher better than he knew himself. She knew he wouldn’t suffer because he would never allow anything to pierce his own carefully constructed inner world. He was devoured by his own Beast. And he would never escape his own self-centeredness. Why? Because He had seen OUTSIDE of his life, not learned it within, the way a woman was mourned when she had been loved for herself… The escape would have been to love her; then, THEN he would have lived. SHE had lived--who could say now with what passion?—since she had loved him for himself; whereas he had never thought of her… he had thought only of himself. She devoted her life to him. Even after she realized there was no Beast, she stayed with him. Why? Because she loved him. The escape for Marcher would have been to love her back. He missed his chance. And that was the real beast in the jungle.


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