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The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 What Is 'The Beast in…
  • 1:38 Marcher & May
  • 3:17 'The Beast in the…
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson provides a summary and analysis of Henry James' short story 'The Beast in the Jungle.' A core focus of this lesson is the story's emphasis on the themes of loneliness, relationships, the meaning of life, and life's inevitable regrets.

What Is 'The Beast in the Jungle'?

Let's face it: Henry James knows the human mind, knows what makes us tick and what scares us to death. He understands all those dark, creepy corners of our consciousness that maybe we don't even want to admit to ourselves.

It's no wonder, then, that Henry James has long been known as a master of subtle psychological fiction, especially considering that his brother was the pioneering psychiatrist William James, who originated the term, 'stream-of-consciousness', the train of thought that leads so often to unexpected places and surprising revelations about who we are in the innermost recesses of our hearts and minds.

In one of James' most important short stories, 'The Beast in the Jungle', the author tells the story of John Marcher and his lifelong friendship with May Bartram. Seems simple enough, right? Well, not so fast, because the truth is that Marcher is more - and less - than he appears. He is a man who takes fear of commitment to amazing new heights. If you look up the phrase, 'fear of intimacy,' in the dictionary, you're likely to find a picture of John Marcher. Okay, maybe we exaggerate, but not by much.

The truth is that James uses Marcher and May's relationship to show how terrifying it can be to make yourself vulnerable, to truly open up to another person, to truly care about another person, and to allow yourself to be cared for in return. And maybe the only thing scarier, James suggests, is NOT doing this, is letting life, love, and opportunity pass you by because you're too scared - not to mention too self-absorbed, too wrapped up in your own fears - to do otherwise.

Marcher and May

James' story traces the decades-long friendship between Marcher and May, a friendship that apparently blossoms quickly into love - though not exactly the fiery kind that sells paperback romances -and that's just fine with Marcher, who's hardly the rippling muscle and white-horse-riding type anyway.

Early in their relationship, Marcher shares with May the great secret of his life, his conviction that it is his destiny to suffer some catastrophic fate, some spectacular event that will define his life and the lives of those around him. This event, Marcher says, lies in wait for him like the beast in the jungle that gives the story its name. Little do we know that this beast is nothing more than his own fears - the fear of the life he could live if he just had the guts to do so, to be vulnerable and bold enough to go after what he wants.

Across the decades, May and Marcher cultivate their friendship, determining to await together the pouncing of the 'beast.' But Marcher vows that he will never embroil a wife or children in this vigil, that he will not tie the fate of a family he would create to the catastrophe that he knows awaits him; a pretty handy rationalization for the commitment-phobe to end all commitment-phobes.

Only when May has died and Marcher visits her graveside does he realize that the beast, indeed, has come, and that the catastrophe was one of his own making: he has let life and love pass him by. He has cultivated a life of loneliness of his own volition, throwing away the love of a good woman and the life they could have led together, brooding over an event that otherwise never would have been. In the process, he creates what he fears.

'The Beast in the Jungle' Analysis

James is renowned for the psychological nuance of his texts, and for the psychological complexity of his characters. John Marcher is a powerful example of this. An egoist, one absorbed only by his own circumstances, thinking only of himself and his perceptions, Marcher's fears and obsessions do not enable him to see anything beyond himself. He cannot recognize or truly reciprocate May's love until it is too late. His fears of intimacy drive him into isolation and self-absorption, creating the life of loneliness that he both fears and desires.

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