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A Comparison of "The Figure in the Carpet" and "The Beast in the Jungle" by Henry James

Essay 2015 7 Seiten

Didaktik - Englisch - Literatur, Werke


Henry James’s short stories “The Figure in the Carpet“ (1896) and “The Beast in the Jungle“ (1903) are both narratives of his later years. Whereas “The Figure in the Carpet“ tells the story of a literary critic who fails to understand the work of a fictitious author named Hugh Vereker, “The Beast in the Jungle“ is about the protagonist John Marcher who is waiting for an unknown event in his life. Both stories deal with the subject of a hidden secret that remains unknown to the protagonists of James’s stories. Due to the fact that these secrets remain unsolved throughout the narratives, this essay focuses on the design and effects of the leading metaphors. It compares these metaphors with each other and tries to outline their differences and similarities. Starting with the definition of the term “metaphor“ and illustrating it’s importance for Henry James’s stories, it proceeds with a short overview of the stories’s issues. After illustrating the importance of literary meaning from the perspective of philosophers and literary scholars, this essay proceeds with the relevance of literary meaning for James’s stories. The essay’s last paragraph analyzes the leading metaphors of both narratives by comparing their design and effects for the stories’s meanings. Finally, this work concludes by saying that the metaphors are linked relating to their issues and contribute to the stories’ messages.

Metaphors are one of the most used literary devices and therefore existent in a huge number of literary works. Due to the fact that they play an important role not only for a story’s course but also for its message and occur in James’s stories as well, the term has to be defined. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable“[1]. Moreover, it is “something regarded as representative or suggestive of something else, especially as a material emblem of an abstract quality, condition, notion etc.“[2]. According to this definition, it seems to be self-evident that in a metaphor, one subject is implied to be another, so as to draw a comparison between their similarities and shared traits.

In his stories The Figure in the Carpet and The Beast in the Jungle, Henry James uses metaphors including their effects on the stories’ plots and messages. Both narratives are concerned with the question of meaning, since the plots illustrate a profound purpose. This profoundness emerges from the stories’ titles inasmuch as they represent the leading metaphors for the course of James’s short stories. The metaphors of a figure in a carpet and a beast in the jungle come along with the necessity of discovering their meanings. The reader is accompanied by this need until the stories’ ends and is encouraged to discover the meaning by himself.

According to the German literary scholar Wolfgang Iser[3],“meaning“can only be found in the text itself. Furthermore, it is only structured but not contained by the text and comes into being by the process of reading. Therefore, meaning is created through the interaction of the text and the reader. Due to the fact that each reader brings something different to a text, that is to say different experiences or knowledge, every text has a different meaning for each reader. A false presupposition exists in so far as that it is believed that a literary work has to have a single, logical and unified meaning. Even the philosopher Martin Heidegger denies that texts have an essential meaning or an intrinsic nature that the reader has to grasp in an act of interpretation[4]. James mentions in an Essay that “in every novel the work is divided between the writer and the reader“[5] . In turn, this means that the writer provides the material, and the reader has to create the meaning. It is often believed that a novelist makes use of a unifying design that links the visible and traceable elements of a story with the subliminal and interpretable ones. The unifying design of a text can be understood as the idea behind. It first exists as a kind of matrix in the author’s head and becomes an immanent pattern within and behind a literary work. Literary devices are therefore significant elements for the shape of the author’s intention.

To return to Henry James’s stories, the idea of a unifying design raises the question of meaning in The Figure in the Carpet and The Beast in the Jungle. Not only the stories’ plots but also their titles create a mysterious prevailing mood and evoke the need of uncovering these mysteries. The occurring metaphors in both stories make a contribution to the reader’s need of detecting the stories’ meanings. In James’s The Figure in the Carpet, the leading metaphor of a figure in a carpet is striking. At first sight, the story’s title seems to have nothing in common with its plot since it deals with a critic’s desperate search for a sense in a novelist’s work. The story is neither about a figure nor about carpets. But having the definition of a metaphor in mind, it becomes clear that the figure in the carpet must have something to do with the supposed sense in Vereker’s novel. He is the one who plants the idea of a deeper sense in his work into the narrator’s mind with the help of this metaphor.


[1] "metaphor, n."OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 26 February 2015.

[2] ibid.

[3] Battai, Tamás Ivor, Getting at ‘ The Figure in the Carpet ’. p.160.

[4] Inwood, Michael, Heidegger. p.9.

[5] Johnson, Warren, Parable, Secrecy and the Form of Fiction. p.230.


ISBN (eBook)
475 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main – Institut für Englisch- und Amerikastudien
comparison figure carpet beast jungle henry james




Titel: A Comparison of "The Figure in the Carpet" and "The Beast in the Jungle" by Henry James