Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

HENRY JAMES: The Beast in the Jungle 3 (Aging Gracefully)

When May Bartram agreed to “watch” with John Marcher she may not have realized it would be a lifetime commitment. Some people know exactly what they want out of life. The Wife of Bath wanted a new husband. Clytemnestra wanted to kill her old one. Achilles wanted respect and honor. Jesus wanted to follow the will of his Father. Other people aren’t as clear about what they want out of life. Hamlet had a hard time making up his mind whether it’s better to be or not to be. May Bartram is in the class of those who know what they want out of life. She made a commitment to stick by John Marcher and that’s exactly what she did. She didn’t swerve from her original plan. John Marcher, on the other hand, was more like Hamlet. He felt that something terrible was going to happen to him. He just wasn’t sure what it was. And he could never seem to make up his mind how to deal with it. It was like a beast in the jungle waiting to pounce on him.
Young people have premonitions or dreams about what their lives will be like. They may become famous rock stars or artists or athletes. They may die young but tragically and romantically like Romeo and Juliet. But as years go by most people shed these illusions and get on with their lives. John Marcher did not. The question for the reader is: why not? And a related question concerning May Bartram is: why did she stick with him? It’s a complicated answer because these were complicated people. Like Hamlet, John Marcher was ultimately most interested in the inner workings of his own mind. He was convinced that he was doomed to some awful fate, but what? He didn’t know. He was just sure that it would happen. If not now, then some time in the future. But as the years drag on nothing happens. The beast doesn’t pounce. Marcher begins to wonder if he’s made a big mistake; if this whole idea of his doomed fate was just a colossal waste of time. Marcher is an educated man and we can see the workings of his mind when he ponders: “Since it was in Time that he was to have met his fate, so it was in Time that his fate was to have acted.” Dummies never have those kinds of thoughts. Time and fate are, in fact, closely interconnected. A man’s fate has to play itself out in the real world over an extended period of time. Life isn’t just one little episode; or, in Marcher’s case, it isn’t just one huge cataclysmic event that stamps Marcher’s Fate forever on his forehead.
Life is more subtle, more complicated, and yet at the same time much simpler, than John Marcher realizes. May Bartram figures this out fairly early. She gets it. But as the years roll by he still doesn’t get it: “ he waked up to the sense of no longer being young, which was exactly the sense of being stale… It all hung together… When the possibilities themselves had accordingly turned stale, when the secret of the gods had grown faint, had perhaps even quite evaporated, that, and that only, was failure.” As May Bartram ages she mellows and finds contentment. John Marcher just becomes stale. What’s the difference? Why do some people age gracefully and other folks just turn stale? Marcher thinks May knows some secret and she’s not telling him. But she’s not telling him because it’s not something that can be told. Life has to be lived personally in order to be an authentic life. And that’s not something she can give to him; he has to choose his own path. May chose her path. What happens if Marcher doesn’t? “It wouldn't have been failure to be bankrupt, dishonoured, pilloried, hanged; it was failure not to be anything.” Marcher’s worst nightmare is about to come true. His failure lies in not choosing his own path/fate and that’s the same beast that rotted Hamlet’s life: to be, or not to be…anything.


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