Relationships according to James

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Relationships are at the centre of the two short novels we’ve read by James. Although they are relationships between men and women, they aren’t necessarily very romantic. In The Beast in the Jungle, there is a particular aspect of John and May’s relationship that stands out. I think it is what James would consider the most important aspect of any relationship, which is the deep knowledge they have of one another.

Their relationship is a reminder that we view the people in our lives and in our world based on what we know about them or based on the specific context that we meet them in. May, for example, “was all the while looking at his life, judging it, measuring it, in the light of the thing she knew, which grew to be at last, with the consecration of the years, never mentioned between them save as “the real truth” about him.” (314) Most people, generally speaking, know very little about each other. Even those who are acquaintances can go their whole lives without really knowing much about the other person. Thus, according to James, what distinguishes a real human bond or relationship isn’t romance, or love or mutual respect, but rather heightened knowledge of another person. Deep understanding that allows someone to have a totally unique perspective of another that nobody else has is what continues a real relationship.

Re-reading Daisy Miller with a queer lens

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We mentioned in class the lack of sexual attraction Henry James seems to be able to include in his writing. After discussing sexuality in so much length in Beast in the Jungle, I began to think about the same topic in Daisy Miller. In the first description the reader receives about Winterbourne, he is described as being “extremely devoted” to an older lady in Geneva. It is seemingly a purposefully obscure description to convey some possible sexual relationship, but could also reflect a subconscious queer lack of desire on Winterbourne/ Jame’s part. Given the inability for a gay person in the 1800s to be obviously out, Winterbourne(/James) could have attempted to surround himself with older women to thinly hide his sexuality. So too are his descriptions of Daisy extremely withdrawn. He judges her appearance thoroughly –  “not at all insipid”, “eminently delicate”, “not exactly expensive” – and yet we as readers never really gather any true sexual or even really romantic desire in his appraisal. He is mostly interested in his “mystifying manners”, as if he is figuring out a puzzle.

Further, Winterbourne is largely grouped with the women of the novel. He is traveling Europe leisurely alongside older women like his aunt, while the men are elsewhere working.

I definitely think that all of these things point to Winterbourne also reading as a potentially queer character. It’s hard not to forget the circumstances of James’ own sexuality when reading his stories, and the repression and restraint (along with the lack of passion) that so prominently feature in them seem to indicate a queer pattern.

Gayness and Egotism

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In our last class, we talked about both Marcher’s gayness and his egotism. Many of the class wondered how to reconcile these two alternate readings of the story, or if it was even possible at all. Some people think that the gayness reading detracts from the egotist reading. I think personally that the so called egotism of Marcher cannot be helped. He does not realize his latent queerness because of societal norms and conditioning, so his sense of foreboding throughout is more complex and genuinely tragic than if he was truly just self-obsessed. The fact that May purported to know what was supposed to happen to him must have nagged at him greatly, because if you can’t understand a fundamental part of yourself (even though it is framed as something entirely unique by Marcher) then you do lose part of your life. If read as a gay story, Marcher erroneously dismissing the lack of feeling as love because he had assumed that whatever he had felt with previous female companions was love is quite sad and reads more as evidence of a societal problem than Marcher’s own egotism. The fact that May got wrapped up in it is unfortunate, but it is also unfortunate the lack of freedom the society offered women as well. The fact that Marcher couldn’t understand, realize, or acknowledge the reality of his feelings did damage her life, but she too was so conditioned to presume heterosexuality that she did not stop and wonder if perhaps Marcher was not straight. Overall, I think the egotist reading is less meaningful than the gay reading and is somewhat dismissive of the real struggle of living as a gay person in the 1800s. The egotist reading is funny in its way but seems less meaningful. The story still stands as a story about the stories we tell ourselves (or don’t know how to tell ourselves) even when read with a queer lens.

Marcher & May

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In class today we talked about how the ‘beast in the jungle’ was perhaps really Marcher’s repression of his sexuality. I went into reading this novel not really thinking this, but as I read further it did seem to become more apparent that Marcher being gay could be a strong possibility. One passage in which this became most clear to me was in chapter four when Marcher goes to visit May while she is sick. The narrator writes that, “It had become suddenly, from her movement and attitude, beautiful and vivid to him that she had something more to give him; her wasted face delicately shone with it—it glittered almost as with the white lustre of silver in her expression…for what he saw in her face was the truth” (46 in my ebook). The ‘something more’ that she could give him I took as love. Marcher realizes that he could love her, and be with her. However, he does not fully understand this idea, because he does feel that way for her or any woman. The truth that he sees in her face is perhaps that he does not love her in that way. He loves her as a friend, but nothing more. From the moment they met (again) at the beginning of the novel they had a connection. In most cases, such a connection between characters in a novel would lead to a romance, which is how I envisioned the novel progressing. However, Marcher does not feel this way for May, something he seems to know, but does not know why. She cannot actually offer him anything more because the passion and meaning he seeks would not be found in a woman. Marcher thinks that May must have some kind of knowledge about him, for he sees it in her face. But Marcher cannot find what he is looking for in May.

Why May Stayed

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As we discussed today in class some the reason may stayed with Marcher is quite confusing.  We all can see now that Marcher stayed with May, because of her knowledge and her companionship.  In that having a close female friend made it seem to himself and others that he was not gay.  However, May seems to lack the same type of rational reasoning to why she stayed with Marcher.  Thinking about why she did this I can only believe that it was, because she either truly loved him or needed to feel wanted.

Through the story we find that most of May’s family is dead and thus she is a lonely person.  Marcher develops a strong need for her, because of what she provides for him.  I feel that May longed for this sense of being needed.  We can all agree that it feels good to be wanted, and for May who lacked friends and family for the most part Marcher filled that hole.  Without Marcher I feel May would have been extremely lonely in that she wouldn’t have gotten married, because she was 30 by the second meeting with Marcher and still unmarried.  In this way May found her only happiness in life through Marcher, and thus tolerated his lack of reciprocation.

Another reason I feel she could have stayed was because she was truly in love with him.  Throughout the story May presents herself to Marcher in a hope that he will see her need for affections.  She wants his love and wants it to be reciprocated.  In this way through the whole novel she is longing for Marcher, but never gets him.  I also think this love for him is what leads to her death.  That is a death of an unknown sickness, which I feel is a broken heart.  She comes to terms with the fact that he will never love her, and dies from this tragic reality.

Syntax in “The Beast in the Jungle”

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My reading experience of The Beast in the Jungle, while enjoyable, was dominated by trying to decode and comprehend James’s long and complex sentences. I often found myself feeing isolated from the actual plot and the characters because I had to slow down and sift through each complex clause and syntactic formation. When I finished the story and discovered that Marcher’s “beast” was his own social isolation, however, I appreciated the complex syntax because it cultivated a reading experience similar to Marcher’s experiences in life; we as readers are just as distant and isolated from the events of his life as he is.

The effect of James’s syntax becomes most apparent when Marcher realizes what his beast is. Rather than continue in his normal rambling style, James concisely writes: “The escape would have been to love her; then, then he would have lived.” The simplicity of this sentence stands out and shocks the reader, and thus makes this statement as jarring as the epiphany that it expresses. For the first time, there is no mystery embedded in the structure of the sentence, just as there is no mystery embedded in his life.

Perspective in Beast of the Jungle

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The entire time I was reading Beast in the Jungle I kept trying to guess what the Beast could possibly be, as I’m sure all of you were trying to figure out as well. At one point, I was certain it was going to be May’s death and another time I thought how funny it would be if nothing were to happen at all. When I was first introduced to the concept of the “Beast” in the opening chapters I was wrapped up in the excitement of it. I thought for sure that something momentous was going to happen to John Marcher. The tone of the piece closely follows Marcher’s relationship with the Beast. At the beginning of the story, he is constantly on the edge of his seat, still young and still feeling more excited than apprehensive about his fate. But as Marcher begins to doubt his path and has to continually convince himself that he is doing the right thing, that he is not a selfish person, the story begins to drag. The chapters are action-less, instead becoming predominantly descriptive. As Marcher becomes more wrapped up in himself and his own mind, so does the reader. We are constantly being pulled into Marcher’s thoughts, unable to escape his apprehension, just as he is unable to. James use of his narrative structure to reflect the emotions of his characters creates a more enthralling story which successfully involves the reader in Marcher’s life.

However – I think the perspective in the story is interesting as well because even though Marcher is so self-absorbed, which is ultimately his downfall in a sense, the narrator is still from a third-person perspective. Even though the reader is so involved in Marcher’s mind we are still disconnected from it since the story is not told from a first-person perspective. Perhaps this serves to indicate that Marcher is so disconnected from the world, and from the people around him? Any thoughts?

John’s Epiphany

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I wanted to talk about John Marcher’s epiphany concerning the identity of his “beast in the jungle”.  For his entire life, John lived in fear of what he believed to an inevitable fate or the “beast in the jungle”.  With this fear, John feels that he’s marching along to a ghastly end that he has no way of avoiding (which places a bit of significance on his last name!)

With his immense fixation for most of his life on the uncertain future, John only realizes that his ultimate fate was of his own making after May’s death, “He had justified his fear and achieved his fate” (339).  With this realization of how he ruined his own life with his consternation over the future, John, distraught, awakens to an epiphany, “This horror of waking-this was knowledge, knowledge under the breath of which the very tears of his eyes seemed to freeze” (339).  By finally understanding the effects of his actions, John can experience life in the present without looking too far ahead into the unknown, even if it’s only him feeling downtrodden.  This sudden rush of bitter emotion, however, “suddenly sickened” John, leading him to conceive a new “beast in the jungle” and run in fear of said beast.  Despite his immense regret for how he previously acted, John cannot accept the effects of experiencing life, choosing to continue living in fear of the beast.  I think that this ending lessens the impact of John’s epiphany as, despite the long vivid descriptions of John recognizing his failures and being overwhelmed with sadness, John simply cannot accept life and runs in fear.

Also, after finishing this story, I felt that this ending parallels the end of Daisy Miller in that both John and Winterbourne, despite realizing the error of their ways, are incapable of changing their habits.  Then, these similar endings raises the idea that James wrote these stories to comment on the potentially lethal effects of one’s habits, on themselves or on others.  Definitely interested in reading more of these stories to see if that is a prevalent theme in James’ works!

Beast in the Jungle

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While at times tiresome, I found John Marcher’s desire (what he describes as somewhat of a premonition) for something large and meaningful to happen in his life intensely relatable.

It is fitting then, that the great catastrophe of Marcher’s life is the nothingness that (doesn’t) occur, most notably the loss of any chance at love with May’s death. Early in the text, he notes –

“But the devil in this was that the very basis itself put marrying out of the question. His conviction, his apprehension, his obsession, in short, was not a condition he could invite a woman to share.” (313) And further, that he did not wish to disturb anyone with the “queerness of having to know a haunted man.” (313)

His unwillingness to let anyone into his life, lest they are either directly affected by the great catastrophe to come or are just bothered by having to watch him be aware of its coming, makes for an intensively lonely life for Marcher.

As May dies, he almost comes into the realization of this loneliness and nothingness – “it seemed to him he should be most lost if his history should prove all a platitude” – but seems to not fully grasp this, believing he has time left (327).

Still, he realizes too late as he sits in the graveyard that “the escape would have been to love her” (339). He was so caught up in the so human desire to have a meaningful and interesting life that he avoided what could have truly imbued his life with great meaning – any sort of relationship.

At the end of last class we mentioned quickly how Henry James could’ve continued to remain relevant. I believe this struggle and desire for any sort of great happening in life – even if it is a catastrophe – is inside all people. No one wants nothing to happen.

 

Americans in Europe

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I thought Daisy Miller was different from a lot of the literature that we have read so far this semester. Most of what we have read has been about Americans in the context of America. Fanny Fern wrote about a woman thriving in the American society. Whitman and Emerson discussed the distinctly American identity. However, here we have an American in Europe. It was interesting to see how the American identity differed in the context of essentially another world. Daisy was constantly disapproved of because her flirtations with other men vastly differed from the European way. She would go around with men at late hours, something that the older woman viewed as scandalous and wrong. In a way, Daisy seemed to represent America itself. She was young, mysterious, and distinctly different from the Europeans. Her youth seemed to be juxtaposed in the ‘Old World’ status of Europe. At the end of the novella Daisy is in Rome, an incredibly old city of ruins. Rather than act like ‘normal’ girls her age would, Daisy adventures around the city at night with a man. Winterbourne—although also American—did not act at all like Daisy. Perhaps this is due to the fact that he had been in Europe so long that he had become accustomed to the European way. Winterbourne himself is confused by Daisy, the American abroad in Europe, and does not know how to classify her, no matter how much he studies her.

Daisy Miller – A cautionary tale?

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Henry James’ Daisy Miller is in a sense who we all want to be, or at least a stereotype of an ideal in that she is calm, confident, pretty, and clearly doesn’t care what people think of her. However, her blindness when it comes to others views of her and her general recklessness seem to be what eventually forms her downfall and early death. If she had listened to the stiff Winterbourne and simply “acted properly”, she wouldn’t have been cut off by people talking about her behind her back, and she presumably wouldn’t have died so young. If taken this way, it sounds as if James is writing a critique of impropriety and defiant refusal to conform.

However, although these qualities lead to Daisy’s social and physical deaths, her brazen recklessness is what makes Daisy interesting in the first place. Even though the story is told mostly through Winterbourne’s perspective, Winterbourne is frankly a much more boring character. In fact, I would say that Daisy and Giovanelli are the only characters in the story who are distinct individuals with interesting characteristics. Daisy may have flamed out young, but she lived with a purpose and with a knowledge of who she was, which is more than can be said for Winterbourne, who followed all of society’s rules.

Society in Daisy Miller

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I’m very interested in the use of the word “society” in Daisy Miller as it appears often in the novel and is used with a different with a different connotation than I’m used to. In the beginning, Daisy rambles on about “society” stating, “the only think I don’t like… is the society. There isn’t any society; or, if there is, I don’t know where it keeps itself. Do you? I suppose there is some society somewhere…. I am very fond of society, and I have always had a great deal of it.” She goes on to talk about society in New York, and later in the novel, her mother mentions how Daisy is very social because of the society. In a modern context, the use of this word in this way doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. My understanding of society is more associated with the structure of civilization as a whole. Daisy speaks of society as it’s own entity. I don’t know if Daisy’s and her mother’s use of the word made sense to others during this time period, but I think it must have. She talks about it like it’s a rare animal that she is constantly on the hunt for. Based on the uses of the world later in the novel it seems that, for Daisy, society is what I think we consider “high society,” or groups of social elitists. Of course, most of the story focuses on Daisy’s integration to this use of the word “society” as she gets older. Though it doesn’t seem like actual society to me (which is very general), but rather a very specific group of certain types of people.

Memory in The Beast In The Jungle

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The first sections of Beast in the Jungle provide an interesting look at the indefinable feelings that remembrance can induce.  The idea of partial remembrance is something that is part of the human condition. Ignoring those who are blessed with perfect memory, all people tend to forget. Explaining the sensation of struggling to recapture these lost memories is similarly difficult to explaining the nature of color. Humans are naturally not in constant direct control of their memory and thus are victims of its ebbs and flows.

James includes some elegant lines on these feelings during Marcher’s first interactions with May. While memory is superficially difficult to understand, I feel that James is able to capture many of these “indescribable” sensations in this section. For example he says that “it affected him as the sequel of something of which he had lost the beginning” (Beasts In The Jungle). I found this particularly captivating because it includes the knowledge of a past experience but one that is missing and required for understanding of the present. The old incomplete memory has made the existence in the current one difficult.

Daisy Miller as Herself

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Who is Daisy Miller, really? I’m always struck by the subjectivity of our texts and how much the reader’s view of a character is influenced by the narrator’s voice. In Daisy Miller, this becomes an even stronger reality as there are two individuals separating Daisy from the reader. The narrator, while oftentimes noticeably absent from the narrative, is still the filter through which we encounter Winterbourne. And after Winterbourne is filtered through the narrator we are only then exposed to Daisy who is presented through Winterbourne’s eyes. Thus, I found it very difficult to form an accurate opinion of Daisy as I knew that I was being so heavily influenced. I do believe that James was aware of this and even used it as a plot device, in order to point out to the reader how powerful one’s reputation can be. Daisy is essentially shunned from much of polite society because no one goes through the effort to kindly inform her of her mistakes. Although she is often criticized, there is no one who explicitly explains to Daisy her situation. Winterbourne does not truly know Daisy, and neither does Mrs. Costello, Mrs. Walker or even her mother, but they all deem themselves worthy of passing judgement on her. Daisy’s reputation has passed through so many individuals that her true character is difficult to ascertain.

When I read the novella for the first time a few weeks ago, I was initially frustrated with Daisy and her naivete and apparent rebellious nature. Her death at the end of the novella seemed to be largely her fault, as she did not heed Winterbourne’s warnings about the “Italian fever”. However, while rereading the book for this class my view on Daisy changed drastically. I saw more clearly how she was merely a product of her condition – fatherless (physically absent) and essentially motherless (with a mother who is passive and emotionally absent), no one has taught her well enough, and it is Winterbourne’s difficulties in communication that prevent Daisy from learning what she needs to know.

Queer Coding in The Beast in the Jungle

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Since it is now pretty well known that Henry James was probably gay (though closeted) it is hard for me to avoid reading this story as queer coded.  The secret Marcher shares with May, that he has a “sense of being kept for something rare and strange” (309) and possibly terrible, is spoken about the way one would speak of their homosexuality in this era. May and Marcher describe the secret as: “something about yourself that it was natural one shouldn’t forget” “not a condition that he could invite a woman to share” (313) “the real truth about [him]” (315). All of these descriptions also apply to homosexuality. When May asks him if this secret feeling could be “the sense of danger-familiar to so many people-of falling in love?” (309), Marcher asks for clarification of the feeling, and then says no, because the love he has experienced “hasn’t been overwhelming” (310). May responds, “Then it hasn’t been love,” (310) which underscores the idea that Marcher is simply a closeted gay person.

Further, Marcher describes his persistent feeling as not “a matter as to which I can choose” (317) and remarks to May, “You help me pass for a man like another.” (320). Even if it was unintentional, James seems to share some similarities with Marcher that he might not have been aware of.