Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle (1-2)

Last week we read an ancient Greek play about Agamemnon. When Aeschylus sat down to write Agamemnon he didn’t have to stop and make up all the characters that would be in his play. They were already there. Homer’s story of The Iliad already contained many of the characters that would be used by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in their own Greek tragedies. Aeschylus just built on a literary foundation that was laid before him. Writers don’t exist in a vacuum. When Chaucer wrote about the Wife of Bath he could draw on all these Greek stories and more. When Henry James wrote The Beast in the Jungle he could draw on the Greek stories plus Chaucer and all the other writers up to his own time. They read the classics, reflected on them, and then responded with their own visions of life. One Great Books commentator called this The Great Conversation.
With that background in mind maybe we can better appreciate Henry James’ vision of life. The Beast in the Jungle is set in the upper classes of British society. Marcher and May Bartram are well educated and sophisticated people. The story has a definite psychological tone that sets it far apart from Chaucer and Aeschylus. Marcher confesses to May that he’s always felt as if some catastrophe is out there waiting for him; something dramatic that will change him forever and will pounce on him suddenly, like a beast in the jungle. May has to decide if this man is a nut case or if Marcher is someone she’d like to know better. She takes him seriously and they embark on a relationship. Most of the action in the story takes place only in their heads. But the reader is given a vision of life and the intimate connections that can hold people together for years.
May has made it her goal in life to find out what Marcher wants. He says "It isn't a question of what I want; God knows I don't want anything. It's only a question of the apprehension that haunts me; that I live with day by day." This “apprehension” of some “beast” is what bothers Marcher. So he asks May to “watch” with him. But he leaves the final decision up to May: "It will only depend on yourself; if you'll watch with me." Where have we heard that one before? Writers don’t exist in a vacuum. Henry James may be echoing an earlier reading in the Gospel of Mark. In Gethsemane the disciples of Jesus fall asleep and he asks “couldst thou not watch one hour… the spirit truly is willing but the flesh is weak.” May asks Marcher, three times, are you afraid? And three times Marcher avoids giving her a direct answer. Where have we heard that before? From the same Gospel. Three times they ask Peter if he knows Jesus; Peter is afraid and says no three times in three different ways. Now compare the exchange between May and Marcher: "Are you afraid?" she asked. "Don't leave me now," he went on. "Are you afraid?" she repeated. "Do you think me simply out of my mind?" he pursued instead of answering. "Do I merely strike you as a harmless lunatic?" "No," said May Bartram. "I understand you. I believe you." "You mean you feel how my obsession (poor old thing!) may correspond to some possible reality?" "To some possible reality." "Then you will watch with me?" She hesitated, then for the third time put her question. "Are you afraid?" "Did I tell you I was; at Naples?" What is Marcher afraid of? Maybe he’s afraid of the real question May is asking him. It’s the same question Jesus later asks Peter three times: do you love me? Peter is a simple man and answers yes, yes, and yes. Marcher is complex and answers don’t leave me, do you think I’m crazy, and did I tell you that? What is Marcher afraid of? Maybe some beast; maybe just being in love.


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