An Analysis and Summary of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle”

The Beast in the Jungle is a poignant story about a man who anticipates an event that he expects will set him apart from all others. Henry James uses his main character John Marcher to show what happens when someone never looks beyond themselves and lives without ever truly understanding the importance of giving yourself to another person and sincerely loving them.

As the story states, “the escape would have been to love [his dear friend May Bartram]; then, then, he would have lived” (James 476). It is his lack of reciprocating May Bartram’s love that dooms him to “the beast in the jungle.” Instead of a first-person narrative, as one would expect from a story about self-absorption, a third person narrative is used. Henry James’ use of the third person benefits the story’s theme of a life unlived by generating distance from the characters, allowing the reader to objectively understand Marcher’s thoughts, and creating a parallel between Marcher’s need to look outside himself for self-discovery and the narration style.

Despite Henry James choice to write in third person narrative, the narrator is not all-knowing as in most cases, rather the storyteller is quite distant from his characters, especially May Bartram. Brown argues that this distance is created, because “May’s role in the story is precisely to die” (Brown). Although her death is extremely important and is what ultimately brings Marcher to self-actualization, Brown is incorrect in stating that dying is her main role in The Beast in the Jungle. She is the ficelle in this narrative.

Her character acts as a motivating force towards all action in the entire story. May begins the conflict that causes Marcher’s obsession during their second meeting. She continues this same position of importance throughout the story by being the catalyst for this obsession. Even after her death, it is Marcher’s desire to continue to visit her tombstone that ultimately leads him to finally understand what “the beast in the jungle” truly is.

Despite her significance to the overall story, the reader has very limited knowledge about May due to Henry James choice in point-of-view. It is never clear whether she truly knows what “the beast” is or if she merely pretends to know a secret in order to become a part of Marcher’s life. As Goodheart points out, her motivations and thoughts are indistinguishable. Even though she clearly has a life of her own, she is willing to meet with Marcher several times over the course of many years (Goodheart). The author’s decision to create a narrative distance between May and the reader leaves many questions unanswered. One benefit of this is that leaving unanswered questions allows the reader to use their own imagination and create their own interpretation of May Bertram’s motivation. The more the reader can contribute their own thoughts to a story, the more connected they feel to the characters and the story. Another reason for having a narrative distance from May is to cause the reader to focus more on Marcher.

Although the focus being primarily on Marcher, it is important that the story is told in the third person in order to create distance between the reader and the story’s main character. The distant perspective is advantageous because it allows the reader to view Marcher’s actions and thoughts from a point-of-view that Marcher himself is not able to see (Goodheart). Marcher is blind to his own failings and often deceives himself about who he truly is. For instance, it is clear that May Bartram could be the love of his life if only he allowed himself to love her in return. He could then escape from his doomed fate. Instead, he becomes exceedingly infatuated with waiting for “the beast:” so much so that he loses his chance to a redeemed life (Vannatta). One example that shows how the perception of the narrator allows one to better understand how he deceives himself is shown when Henry James writes:

It is one of his proofs to himself, the present he made her on her birthday, that he hadn’t sunk into real selfishness. It is mostly nothing more than a small trinket, but it is always fine of its kind, and he is regularly careful to pay for it more than he thought he could afford (James 457).

The reader sees that Marcher is trying to convince himself that he is not selfish. Despite his many efforts, the passage reflects that his pride is what is more important than the giving of the gift. The quote does not reflect any desire to please May with a gift specifically intended for her enjoyment. Instead, it reflects his desperate desire to appear to be a person who thinks of others, which ironically emphasizes his own self-absorption. It is important that the reader is able to see this self-absorption from an outward perspective due to Marcher’s false perceptions of himself.

Not only is Marcher very deluded about himself, he rarely pays attention to the world around him, despite his claims of not being selfish. Vannatta expresses this well when he states, “John Marcher is an intensely introspective, self-involved, searching yet passive character… he constantly misses the point about himself and his condition” (Vannatta). Marcher’s self-absorption first appears when he is reacquainted with May and cannot remember their momentous first encounter. By contrast, she precisely remembers detailed information about their meeting ten years earlier. She remembers it in such a degree that she is even able to withhold information that intrigues Marcher’s interest.

The narrator’s ability to discuss this meeting, as well as the many to follow, in a detached manner shows the distressing differences between the ways in which the two of them relate to one another. The largest difference between the ways in which the characters relate is how they feel about one another. It is clear that May Bartram is truly in love with John Marcher. On the other hand, Marcher rarely thinks of anyone other than himself, and clearly is not in love with Miss Bartram. Despite Henry James’ choice to use a third person perspective, he does an excellent job reflecting Marcher’s thoughts. One example that he does exceptionally well is when John Marcher debates whether he should marry May:

The real form it should have taken on the basis that stood out large is the form of their marrying. But the devil in this is that the very basis itself put marrying out of the question. His conviction, his apprehension, his obsession, in short, isn’t a privilege he could invite a woman to share (James 455).

By presenting his thoughts in such a way, the reader is able to see the irony in the situation. The thoughts are an attempt to justify his actions of selfishness. Due to the third person narrative, the thoughts are read objectively. This objectivity intensifies the irony in that he does share this “privilege” with her, just not in the confines of a marriage. Understanding John Marcher’s thoughts objectively are crucial in interpreting the story with the meaning that Henry James intended.

This objective understanding parallels Marcher’s inability to see himself clearly until he looks outside of himself. Therefore, it is only fitting that the narration would be placed outside of himself as well. Marcher’s need to view someone or something outside of himself in order to understand truths about himself is shown during the story when it is stated, “If she is old, or almost, John Marcher assuredly is, and yet it is her showing of the lesson, not his own, that brought the truth home to him” (James 462). If he hadn’t first seen that May Bartram was aging, he would have continued to view himself as the same age he was years before. This was a mere foreshadowing of how John Marcher would need to come to self-actualization. Although this is a minor example, it does show how Henry James valued the need to look outside oneself to understand inner truth.

Another poignant example that shows how Marcher’s need to look outside himself parallels with the readers need to be outside Marcher’s mind in order to fully understand him is when he finally learns the truth about himself as he watches a man mourning at the cemetery. The text says, “He had seen outside of his life, not learned it within, the way a woman is mourned when she had been loved for herself” (James 475). Suddenly he became tragically aware that he never truly loved May Bartram nor anyone else. Vannatta explains it best when he says, “[Marcher] suddenly realizes that he himself has never been so moved by anything, that his unique destiny is to be the one man to whom nothing ever happens” (Vannatta). This powerful example intensifies the significance of the parallelism between the third person perspective and Marcher’s need to look outside of himself in order to self-actualize.

In The Beast in the Jungle, Henry James does an outstanding job expressing the feelings of John Marcher through a third person narrative. The reader is better prepared to interpret Marcher’s thoughts objectively due to a slightly distanced perspective. The increased mystery is also a result of narrative distance from the character of May Bartram. Due to the unanswered questions, the reader is allowed to use their imagination more fully. Although there are many literary reasons that Henry James uses a third person point-of-view, the most innovative is the narrative parallelism between the reader’s ability to hear Marcher’s thoughts objectively and the way in which Marcher needed to discover himself.

Works Cited

  • Brown, Arthur A. “Death and the Reader: James ‘The Beast in the Jungle.’.” Postmodern Approaches to the Short Story. Ed. Mary Rohrberger, Farhat Iftekharrudin, Joseph Longo, and Joseph Boyden Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. 39-50. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Vol. 108. Detroit: Gale, 39-50. Literature Resource Center. Gale. GRAND VALLEY STATE UNIV. 3 Mar. 2009 .
  • Goodheart, Eugene. “What May Knew in ‘The Beast in the Jungle.’.” Sewanee Review. 111.1 (Winter 2003): 116-127. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Vol. 108. Detroit: Gale, 116-127. Literature Resource Center. Gale. GRAND VALLEY STATE UNIV. 3 Mar. 2009 .
  • James, Henry. “The Beast in the Jungle.” The Norton Anthology: American Literature. Seventh Edition. Vol. C. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007. 447-476.
  • Vannatta, Dennis. “The Beast in the Jungle: Overview.” Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Ed. Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, Literature Resource Center. Gale. GRAND VALLEY STATE UNIV. 3 Mar. 2009 .