The Beast in the Jungle Quotes

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

This lesson summarizes Henry James' novella ''The Beast in the Jungle.'' We explore the plot, characters, and themes through quotes from James' story about subjectivity and fate.

The Journey or the Destination?

Lauded as a prime example of modern British literature, The Beast in the Jungle is one of Henry James' most well-known works. Critical analyses characterize the novella as an enigmatic tragedy with ambiguous prose and plot.

The story, insofar that there is one, brings new meaning to the cliché, ''life is about the journey, not the destination.'' The absence of passion in the relationship between May Bartram and John Marcher makes readers ponder the very nature of love. Is marriage simply a quirk of happenstance? Is there such a thing as fate? What are the consequences of believing too firmly in our expectations of life?

Quotes about Memory and History

When May and John reunite after a decade, John struggles to remember the circumstances of their first meeting. The theme of faulty memory and its effect on history intensely plays throughout the story. He said they met in Rome; she said they met in Naples.

''He accepted her amendments, he enjoyed her corrections, though the moral of them was, she pointed out, that he really didn't remember the least thing about her; and he only felt it as a drawback that when all was made strictly historic there didn't appear much of anything left.''

More crucially than the geographic details, he forgets that he told her his greatest secret. May has to remind him: ''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.''

The fact that May remembers his most inner secret makes John ashamed. But it also draws him to her. Both feel a close bond, which continues to develop. Before he knows it, life has passed them by. Only when he recognizes the age in her appearance does he realize that he has also grown old.

Character Studies: Quotes about Reciprocity

May Bartram and John Marcher are indeed a great pair, and as James explains it, their relationship sheds a great deal of light on the nature of love, intimacy, and the limits of subjectivity: ''He was at all events destined to become aware little by little, as time went by, that she was all the while looking at his life, judging it, measuring it, in the light of the thing she knew, which grew to be at last, with the consecration of the years, never mentioned between them save as 'the real truth' about him.''

Still, throughout their lives, man and woman remain enigmatic to each other. It seems there's no helping it, because men and women are stuck in the prison of their own minds. We all keep our secrets, whether intentionally or not: ''she did look as if, unexpectedly to her, he had crossed some mystic line that she had secretly drawn round her. Yet she might, after all, not have worried; and the real climax was that he himself, at all events, needn't. 'You'll never find out.'''

Or, the Impossibility of Communication

In her later years, May finally reveals to John some secrets she has been keeping. But the meaning remains mystified. Then, upon her death, John struggles to understand. ''He showed once more his mystification.
'What then has happened?'
Yet he waited for her answer. 'What was to,' she said.''

After May dies, John has nothing to do but to wonder whether his fate may already be derailed. ''Her dying, her death, his consequent solitude--that was that he had figured as the Beast in the Jungle, that was what had been in the lap of the gods.''


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