This article contains the summary and analysis of Henry James’ spiritual gothic ghost story The Beast in the Jungle (1903).
This article series provides a summary of The Beast in the Jungle, the ending or the twist and a short analysis.
Henry James (1843-1916) was an American Author of literary realism and literary modernism. But he has also written ghost stories, stories of the supernatural and the spiritual. His themes compose romance, the fear of marriage, the doppelgänger motif and of course the supernatural that subtly sneaks into real life, ever posing the question if the paranormal is real or not. Often with an unreliable narrator, told in the first person, the events can be explained either by the existence of a real ghost or something that the mind conjured up. His ghost story genre lies in the genre of Romance, where the magical co-exists with everyday life, which creates an eerie uncanny feeling. His stories are always based in the real world of human action, psychology and morality. It therefore is up to the reader to interpret the story as they wish, which can lead to wonderful lively discussions.
This article contains a story that deals with love, life and death.
The Beast in the Jungle (1903)
It was after luncheon at Wheatherend that John Marcher gets acquainted again with May Bartram who he had met 10 years ago in Naples. While he members a lot of their meeting but wrongly, she remembers everything right because he had confided in her to tell her something strange about himself. ‘“You said you had had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you.” But whatever it is, it hasn’t happened to him yet. So he asks her if she will watch with him.
‘The fact that she “knew” – knew and yet neither chaffed him nor betrayed him – had in short time begun to constitute between them a goodly bond, which became more marked when, within the year that followed their afternoon at Wheaterend, the opportunities for meeting multiplied.” May had inherited an amount of money from her aunt that allows her to buy a little house in London. ‘The real form of it should have taken on the basis that stood out large was the form of their marrying. 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, wasn’t a privilege he could invite a woman to share; and that consequence of it was precisely what was the matter with him. Something or other lay in wait for him, amid the twists and the turns of the month and the years, like a crouching Beast in the Jungle. It signified little whether the crouching Beast were destined to slay him or to be slain.’
‘So while they grew older together she did watch him, and so she lets this association give shape and color to her own existence.’ Now she asks him if he’s afraid. ‘All they had thought, first and last, rolled over him; the past seemed to have been reduced to mere barren speculation. This in fact was what the place had just struck him as so full of – the simplification of everything but the stare of suspense. That remained only by seeming to hang in the void surrounding it. Even his original fear, if fear it was had been, had lost itself in the desert.’ He’s not afraid now. When she says it’s not the end, he suspects she knows what’s to happen.
Although warned against his egotism, he’s also concerned about May. Still he feels like she “knows” something, but how could she now something he did not? Then one day she confessed to him her fear of a deep disorder in her blood. And suddenly when she kept more to the house, he sees her as old. ‘Then he recognized that the suddenness was all on his side – he had just simply and suddenly noticed. She looked much older because inevitably, after so may years, she WAS old or almost; which was of course true in still great measure of her companion.’ Then he realized that the great accident would be losing her.
In the spring he asks her ‘“What do yo regard as the very worst that at this time of day CAN happen to me?”’ She answers that she has thought of dreadful things. ‘“(…) I appear to myself to have sent my life in thinking of nothing but dreadful things. A great many of them I’ve at different times named to you, but there were others I couldn’t name.”’ ‘“We’ve had together great imaginations, often great fears; but some of them have been unspoken.”’ ‘“It WOULD be the worst,” she finally let herself say. “I mean the thing I’ve never said.”’
Then the day comes May dies and Marcher thinks this is the catastrophe he had feared his whole life. He goes abroad, visits Asia but when he realizes that everybody had been wondrous for others, he was only wondrous to himself. Thus he returns and when he stands again at May’s grave, there’s another visitor at the cemetery standing by a grave.
‘The stranger posed, but the raw glare of his grief remained, making our friend wonder in pity what wrong, what wound it expressed, what injury not to be healed. What had the man HAD, to make him by the loss of it so bleed and yet live? Something – and this reached him with a pang – that HE, John Marcher, hadn’t; the proof of which was precisely John Marchers’s arid end. No passion had ever touched him, for this was what passion meant; he had survived and maundered and pined, but where had been HIS deep ravage?
(…) One’s doom, however, was never baffled, and on the day she told him his own had come down she had seen him but stupidly stare at the escape she offered him. The escape would have been to love her; then, THEN he would have loved. SHE had lived – who could say now with what passion? – since she had loved him for himself; whereas he had never thought of her (ah how it hugely glared at him!) but in the chill of his egotism and the light of her use.
(…) HE saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a story of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened – it was close; and instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.’
It’s a fatalist tale of what could have been. All the while Marcher was in fear of what terrible thing would happen, he was also afraid to drag a wife with him into his doom. But all this time, May acted as his wife. She saw what was happening, a life unfulfilled, a self fulfilling prophecy even. The terrible catastrophe was his final reminder of this, a realization that shook him. Too preoccupied with himself and his terrible catastrophe that life passed him by, that he was only selfish, used May, instead of really having loved her, for she did love him. While he fears the Beast, nothing happens, not in this tale, nor in his life. It’s his fear of the unknown that paralyzes him, not only of the catastrophe, but life itself, like existential fear or threat.
Read more about Henry James:
- Henry James: The Turn of the Screw [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Altar of the Dead [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: De Grey A Romance [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Ghostly Rental [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Great Good Place [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Jolly Corner [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Last of the Valerri [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: Owen Wingrave [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Real Right Thing [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: Sir Edmund Orme [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Third Person [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Way It Came [Summary & Analysis]
- The Turn of the Screw (Henry James) review