The Beast in the Jungle

Henry James

The Beast in the Jungle

Henry James

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The Beast in the Jungle Summary

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Often described as James’s greatest short story, “The Beast in the Jungle” explores the destructiveness of egoism and selfishness, and the importance of love and passion to a meaningful life. The story begins with civil servant John Marcher attending a gathering at a sumptuous house, where he encounters May Bartram, a woman he vaguely recognizes. When they speak, he claims that he remembers her well, describing meeting her in Rome eight years ago. May is pleased that he remembers who she is but points out that they actually met in Naples ten years ago before describing their meeting in far more detail than Marcher can remember. Although they do not speak of it, both May and Marcher consider how attracted they are to the other person.

After recalling further details about their time in Italy, May also reveals that she remembers the big secret Marcher told her. After a moment of confusion, Marcher realizes the secret she is referring to: that he has always held a deep-seated belief that a huge, significant event—a “beast in the jungle”—awaits him sometime in his future. Surprised that he had been so candid, Marcher admits that he continues to hold this belief but refutes May’s suggestion that the event could be falling in love, suggesting that falling in love is not significant enough. Marcher then invites May to join him in waiting to see what the event will be, and she accepts his offer.

After inheriting money from her aunt, May buys a house in London, and the two meet regularly for many years, endlessly discussing what the great event could be. Sometimes, Marcher suspects that May might actually know what the event is but is refusing to tell him because it is too terrible for him to know. However, May denies that this is the case. As the years pass, Marcher realizes how much his fixation occupies May’s life and how much she sacrifices for him. Guiltily, he realizes that May is not only the one person who knows why he behaves so strangely but also the person who spends her time making him appear less strange, even though it makes her look a little strange herself as a result. Recognizing how significant she is to him, Marcher worries about what he would do if he lost her, a fear that gets worse when May falls ill with a blood disorder. Marcher frets that May might die before she finds out what the great event is, and also worries that May dying might even be the great event. Finally, he worries that he is too old, and the event might never happen.

On one visit to May, who has grown very sick, Marcher declares that she knows something that he does not and implores her to tell him. May refuses to tell him and, moving close to him, says that it is never too late. Despite May’s condition, Marcher remains focused on himself and still largely relates to May only in terms of what assurances or respite he might get from her. At a later meeting, when May is clearly dying, she explains to him that the event has already happened and that he will never be aware of what the event was and should simply make his peace with this fact. Marcher feels distraught that the event has passed him by without him even realizing and distressed that he now has no great future event to focus on.

May dies and Marcher is upset that her family does not recognize how significant she was to his life because they were not married and had no real marker of their relationship. He becomes increasingly obsessed with the past and with trying to decipher exactly what May was talking about and what she had believed the great event to have been. He decides to go traveling and visits May’s grave before he leaves, seeking some kind of revelation from the place but receiving no message and reaching no conclusions. Throughout his long travels, he finds his life empty and lacking. He still feels that he is different from everyone else but that he no longer has the justification for this feeling that his prediction of the great event had once provided.

When he returns to London, Marcher visits May’s grave every month, gaining a vague sense of being alive by knowing that he used to live his life with her. However, on one visit, he encounters a man returning from visiting a different grave. The man is so obviously mourning, with a face so touched with passion, pain, and grief, that Marcher finally realizes that he has never felt such passion and never managed to love May as he might have done. Throughout their long relationship, Marcher had loved May because she knew his secret and supported him with it. He had only loved her in relation to himself and his own life and never simply loved her for who she was. With this revelation, Marcher finally sees that his “beast in the jungle” was his failure to live passionately and love May as he could have done. He realizes that, even when May explicitly told him that it was not too late, he had still missed his chance because of his selfishness and egoism. In a desperate bid to feel alive, he tries to experience the full horror and pain of this sudden understanding, but he still cannot fully embrace such a passionate thought and the story ends with Marcher breaking down, despairing, on May’s grave.

Among the most frequently reproduced of James’s short stories, “The Beast in the Jungle” is widely celebrated by literary critics and the general public alike. As well as its technical prowess and rhetorical strengths, one of its most celebrated aspects is the fact that very little actually happens in the story, an unusual choice that many consider an exemplary example of early modernist writing.

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