I found Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” to be quite sad: the whole novella is a battle to see whether love or the beast will win. When Marcher discovers that May Bertram knows his “secret,” they quickly become close. Marcher’s constant feeling of impending doom is not that far off from what many people experience; it is likely a form of undiagnosed anxiety. But he gives this feeling so much power by refusing to talk about it. Marcher feels like he is a burden: “he had disturbed nobody with the queerness of having to know a haunted man, though he had moments of rather special temptation on hearing people say that they were ‘unsettled’” (313).
Over the course of the story, May and Marcher slowly fall in love, but James only alludes to this. They spend lots of time together, going to museums and gardens. But Marcher is unable to become closer to May; “his conviction, his apprehension, his obsession, in short, was not a condition he could invite a woman to share; and that consequence of it was precisely what was the matter with him” (313). May’s love is faint and unselfish: though she knows that Marcher cannot commit to her, she stands by him and works to help him through his complicated emotions. Marcher is deeply afraid of getting hurt, and instead of being vulnerable, he is standoffish.
When May tells Marcher that she has developed a mysterious and likely fatal blood condition, “he immediately began to imagine aggravations and disasters, and above all to think of her peril as the direct menace for himself of personal privation” (321). Selfishly, Marcher is not particularly concerned with May’s condition, but rather with how he will be able to continue on without her. He comes to realize that he missed out on love because he was so scared of commitment and vulnerability. To me, it seemed evident that Marcher was disguising his emotions: while he might have truly been worried about the encroaching “beast,” he was also certainly anxious about getting too close to May and having to accept that there was always a possibility that he would lose her.
The end of the novella was incredibly sweet. Because Marcher was so frantic for so much of his life, he was unable to understand that time was slipping through his fingers and he had missed the opportunity to enjoy May. In truth, “he had been struck one day, after an absence exceeding his usual measure, with her suddenly looking much older to him than he had ever thought of her being; then he recognized that the suddenness was all on his side—he had just been suddenly struck” (322).
While it is true that not much occurs over the course of the novella, it was probably my favorite text we read this semester. I found it to be an incredibly endearing commentary on love and loss. Truthfully, the interrupted monotony of Marcher’s life led him to understand his strong, misplaced emotions. The novella works to come up with a definition of love, and for the most part, Marcher and May do not seem to be on the same page. At the end, Marcher realizes that he should’ve known and loved May for who she was, as she did for him, even though there was always a chance that he could lose her.
As Marcher asks, “what did everything mean—what, that is, did she mean, she and her vain waiting and her probable death and the soundless admonition of it all—unless that, at this time of day, it was simply, it was overwhelmingly too late?” (323). All along, Marcher was his own beast. It is not until May is dead that Marcher realizes that though the beast existed, it was not vicious. He wasted his life waiting for a terrible fate that was only made worse by his unwavering anxiety.