The Beast in the Jungle: Characters & Character Analysis

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine the characters, May Bartram and John Marcher, from the Henry James short story 'The Beast in the Jungle.' This is the story of a man who sacrifices love in search of a great event that he is sure will occur in his life.

The Beast in the Jungle

What do you hope to accomplish by the end of your life? In The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James, the protagonist, John Marcher, is convinced that his life is meant for something greater than just an ordinary existence. Although he becomes close to May Bartram, Marcher does not consider her as anything more than a friend because he keeps himself available for the great event that he is sure will occur at some point. It is not until she has died that Marcher realizes his great tragedy has been that he has missed out on life and the love that was right in front of him. Let's analyze the characters from this story.

May Bartram

Have you ever met someone that made such an impression on you that you thought of them for years afterward? That is how May Bartram felt after meeting John Marcher. The first time they met, John confided in her that he strongly felt that ''something or other lay in wait for him, amid the twists and the turns of the months and the years, like a crouching Beast in the Jungle.'' The statement seemed so odd to her that she thought of him several times between the first time they met when she was 20 years old and ten years later. John is impressed by May's character because she has not judged him or told his secret to others in all this time. After their second meeting, John keeps in touch.

May has lived with a great aunt since the death of her mother. Once the great aunt passes, May receives an inheritance and moves to London where she and John spend a great deal of time together. As John and May have a shared interest in art and theater, they enjoy companionship with each other. May becomes John's closest confidant.

When John suggests that maybe having May move to London was his big event, she responds that ''she was by no means satisfied with such a trifle as the climax to so special a suspense.'' The strangest parts of John are the same ones that she is most attracted to. As they become part of one another's daily lives, John's dreams become May's dreams. At a certain point, she realizes what John has given up, which is love, but says nothing. At the end of her life, May says, ''I would live for you still - if I could. . . But I can't!''

While in many ways it seems that May lives a life of sacrifice, May feels as though her feelings for John have allowed her to have the greatest of life experiences that he has denied to himself.

John Marcher

Although John enjoys his friends, his books, his garden, and his Government office, he holds all of these things at arms-length, only allowing May to get close to him since she shares his secret. As he is unsure whether the beast in the jungle he speaks about will ''slay him or to be slain,'' John swears off of marriage, imagining his detachment as being in the interest of the safety of others.

Although John never allows his relationship with May to cross the line into one of romance, he immensely appreciates who she has become in his life. Sometimes he questions whether or not he is treating her fairly as both of them have become obsessed with waiting for some amazing event to take place in John's life to the extent that May's life is neglected.

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