Confusion and compensation in Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2007 22 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of content

1. The reader’s frustration in “The Beast in the Jungle”

2. “The Beast in the Jungle” – a story of a peculiar relationship

3. Means that contribute to the reader’s uncertainty, confusion and his frustration
3.1 Imagery and how it affects the reader’s confusion
3.2 Stylistic means that contribute to the reader’s frustration
3.3 The point of view: How do we get to know about Marcher and his secret?

4. Traditional interpretations of the story and their reconstruction

5. Bringing it all together: where is the compensation for the confusion on the basis of a biographical reading?

6. Possible interpretations of “The Beast in the Jungle” on the basis of a queer reading

7. Possible compensations for the reader’s frustration


1. The reader’s frustration in “The Beast in the Jungle”

Reading the different interpretations of “The Beast in the Jungle”, one could draw the conclusion that its meaning is quite clear. The overall tone is that it is a story about a man who does not respond his female friend’s love until her death and then realizes that he should have loved her in order to escape his “unlived life” (cf. for example KRISHNA 1964, 224). Nevertheless, when reading this story, I had a feeling of frustration and I was not really satisfied with the explanations of the various critics because I did not think the story was that clear. Although one could certainly read “The Beast in the Jungle” like this, there are other elements in the story which seem to question this particular one-way interpretation and allow alternative readings.

My aim in this paper is to show that this feeling of frustration and uncertainty that is evoked in the reader is intentional and that it is created by what SEDGWICK calls the “residue”.

“[…] James often, though not always, attempted such a disguise or transmutation [i.e. translating lived homosexual desires into written heterosexual ones], but reliably left a residue both of material that he did not attempt to transmute and of material that could be transmuted only rather violently and messily […]”

(SEDGWICK 1990, 197)

I will try to outline why Henry James might have used this confusing style, what the compensation for him might have been. For this purpose, I will have a look at different aspects that I think mainly determine the story and its reader’s reception. I will try to show how, brought together, they contribute to the reader’s confusion and uncertainty about the meaning of the story and present a reading that is different from the traditional one.

First of all, I will give a brief summary of the story to provide a background of what it is about and to show its dependence on the protagonist and his secret. Thereby, it becomes clear that different interpretations of the story are also mainly based on the perception of the secret: what it is or what it could be and on Marcher’s character.

In the next part, I will start my analysis by trying to show how the story’s strong imagery affects the reader’s expectations of “The Beast in the Jungle” and how it leads the reader into a certain interpretative direction although it can , after a closer examination, be identified as partly delusive.

Having examined the story’s imagery, I will then have a closer look at Henry James’s style. The focus here will be on sentence structure and stylistic means such as preteritions and paraphrases.

Thereafter, I will concentrate on James’s use of point of view in this story and work out, how the mingling of Marcher’s point of view with some comments of an omniscient narrator lead to the reader’s confusion.

I will then try to find out how the traditional interpretations of the story based on the respective reception of imagery and on a perception of James’s life might have developed. This is because I think that, by maintaining this focus, there is a lack of other possible interpretations of the story.

In the end, I will, in connection with other literary critics, show, that there is another possibility to read “The Beast in the Jungle”, namely to read it on the background of homosexual panic and that this reading can be referred especially to the interplay of Henry James’s imagery, his style and his use of point of view. This reading then also opens the possibility of another biographical approach which focuses on the apparent ambiguity of Henry James’s own love life.

2. “The Beast in the Jungle” – a story of a peculiar relationship

In his short novel[1] “The Beast in the Jungle”, published in 1903, Henry James tells the story of John Marcher and May Bartram who, after ten years, meet again at a party and start an extraordinary relationship. The basis on which this relationship develops is a secret Marcher entrusted May with on their first meeting. Because Marcher seems to have forgotten about that, May reminds him that he had admitted his feelings of “being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to [him]” (JAMES 1990, 71) to her. This secret, to which Marcher refers as “a crouching beast in the jungle” laying “in wait for him” (76), becomes the central topic of the short novel and it determines the conversations between Marcher and May as well as the course of the story.

In the years that follow, May and Marcher’s relationship becomes closer. After her great-aunt’s death, May inherits some money with which she is able to buy a small house in London. She now lives near Marcher which gives them the opportunity of frequent meetings. Being the only one who knows about Marcher’s secret, May decides to wait with Marcher for the secret to reveal itself. The years pass and they “[…] grow older together” (78). They go to the opera, play songs on the piano and finally “answer so completely to so usual an appearance: that of the man and the woman whose friendship has become such a daily habit” (79).

Although they seem a perfect couple to the outside, “marrying [is] out of the question” (76) for Marcher. The only thing he has in mind, that he is obsessed with, is his secret and its nature. He wonders whether “the crouching beast were destined to slay him or to be slain” (76). It is just in May that he finds a “confidant” (75) who knows what troubles him and is ready to help him “to pass for a man like another” (84) whereas the rest of the world simply “thought him queer” (79). Nevertheless, Marcher tries to keep up appearances to the outside world. He still fulfils his duties of a middle-class bachelor “caring for his modest patrimony, for his library, for his garden in the country, for the people in London whose invitations he accepted and repaid” and thus keeping his “social simper” (78).

Following their frequent meetings, it becomes increasingly clear that “she [has] something more to give him” (93). Especially on one meeting in April, when she “[diminishes] the distance between them, and she [stands] near to him, close to him” (93) one realizes May’s love for Marcher. Marcher however, still obsessed with his secret, seems not to realize her love but thinks that the “more” she has to give him is her knowledge of the secret.

But in the course of the story, May becomes weaker, suffering from “a deep disorder in her blood” (85). She finally dies, without revealing the secret to Marcher and leaving him troubled “having to see his fortune impenetrably muffled and masked” (100).

After having visited May’s tomb for a last time, he decides to travel to Asia and Egypt for a year but does not find salvation. He then returns to London, visiting May’s grave once more. On the graveyard, he catches sight of a mourning man. When seeing the anguished face, Marcher finally realizes that “no passion had ever touched him” and that the only escape from his non-life “would have been to love [May]” (106). Seeing now “the Jungle of his life”, he eventually “[flings] himself, on his face, on the tomb” (107).

3. Means that contribute to the reader’s uncertainty, confusion and his frustration

As “The Beast in the Jungle” is, as has been shown, a short novel, it is necessary to have a close look at the stylistic devices that the author uses to emphasize his idea of the story. This is all the more important because we deal here with a protagonist’s non-life. As GARGANO points out, James uses the images to compensate for the non-life of John Marcher by “shifting his artistic focus from narrative incidents to clusters of images that mark the stages of his protagonist’s psychological evasions” (GARGANO 1987, 160). Furthermore, the story is shaped by James’s extraordinary style in terms of sentence structure, preterition and the point of view. In order to get the full potential of the story, these three aspects have to be considered taken together as they, as a whole, determine the reader’s reception.

They contribute to the reader’s state of tensed expectation: that of a revelation for the two protagonists which is, apparently, their mutual love. But, as has been indicated and will be revealed in the following paragraphs, the revelation is not that clearly stated in the story. KNOX, in this context, gets to the heart of it: “James seems to want to arouse his reader’s curiosity only in order to frustrate it” (KNOX 1986, 211).

3.1 Imagery and how it affects the reader’s confusion

“The Beast in the Jungle” can certainly be considered as a work in which James proves his famous and elaborate style of writing. What is, above all, striking about the language in “The Beast in the Jungle” is the frequent use of imagery throughout the whole story. Following HOFFMANN and his implications of the short novel’s structure, there are “limitations imposed on the idea and the content by form; expansion is achieved through the techniques of symbolism and imagistic language” (HOFFMANN 1957, 125). A detailed analysis of the images is thus necessary to draw conclusions of what the short novel could be about and to see how the roles of May and Marcher themselves, as well as the potential of their relationship, can be interpreted.

In fact, the names themselves can be considered as symbols as they are derived from the months of March and May (cf. GARGANO 1987, 161). Using these names for his protagonists, one can see a certain sense of James’s irony. Because the months of March and May are normally considered as spring-time months, a time of feelings and new beginnings, one would expect that the names reflect a high potential of feelings in the protagonists. There definitely are feelings in May that are directed to Marcher, as can especially seen in the April scene when she states that “the door’s open” and it becomes obvious that “she had something more to give him” (JAMES 1990, 93). But in contrast to May’s strong feelings, Marcher seems to be unaffected by emotions. Being only obsessed by his thoughts of the beast, he keeps his “inner detachment he had hitherto so successfully cultivated and to which [the] whole account of him is a reference” (85). While May offers herself to Marcher “with her cold sweet eyes on him” (86) and approaches him, the only thing he realizes is in contrast to her passionate love for him: “He had been standing by the chimney-piece, fireless and sparely adorned, a small, perfect old French clock and two morsels of rosy Dresden constituting all its furniture” (93). Despite May’s obvious love confession, Marcher remains as fireless as the chimney and seems to miss all the love potential of this scene. Possible feelings in Marcher that the reader might have expected judged by his name can thus not be recognized. Marcher sticks to an emotional winter rather than to spring.


[1] I consider “The Beast in the Jungle” a short novel referring to C.G. HOFFMANN who defines it as such being more elaborate and showing a more extended breadth than a short story. On the other hand, it still shows features of a short story concentrating “on a single idea and situation, a single line of action to which all the details contribute” (HOFFMANN 1957, 102)


ISBN (eBook)
File size
464 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg
Henry James The Beast in the Jungle imagery stylistic means Queer Theory autobiographical



Title: Confusion and compensation in Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle"