First published in Henry James’s 1902 collection, The Better Sort, “The Beast in the Jungle” is among the most anthologized of his short stories. Often read as a fable about failure, the tale of John Marcher is also seen as an internalized ghost story since the protagonist’s own fears haunt him. Ten years before the narrative begins, Marcher has met May Bartram near Pompeii on the day of a signifcant discovery, and he has told her he feels destined for something terrible. She inquires whether he has met the beast. When the story opens, the narrator has forgotten the specifics of this earlier encounter, but the sense that his life is going to be marked by a terrible event has remained with him. This secret creates a bond between the two, and May accepts his offer to watch with him for the manifestation of the beast.
Circumstances bring them together in London: She has inherited money and can live independently. They fall into a habit of going out to the theater and dinner together and of talking with the verbal intimacy of spouses. He is at times aware that the arrangement benefits him more than it does her, but he convinces himself that he is not selfish in seeming to rob her of the ordinary womanly rewards, such as marriage and children, in life. May seems to know him and to understand his secret, as if she were the perfect angel in the house without being of his household.
When May becomes ill and is obviously dying, Marcher finds that the irregularity of their attachment does not allow him to attend to—or even to visit—her, on whom he has come to depend. He spends the year after her death abroad, and on his return to London, he visits her grave. In the cemetery, he sees a man mourning for his dead wife, and here he encounters the beast. The grief Marcher sees brings the realization that he has failed: He, whose name suggests a military perseverance, had been a noncombatant in life. In trying to escape his fate, he had met it.
Biographical critics read the story as a reworking of James’s mysterious friendship with the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, whose letters James destroyed when she died in Venice, possibly a suicide. (He also destroyed his letters to her when he helped clear out her rooms.) Some biographical critics see in the tale James’s fear of what he might have been, had he not acted on his belief in doing, in pursuing actively the challenges of living. Marcher is often classed with James’s artist-failures, unable to handle his medium, life. Other interpreters see the story as a covert expression of male homosexual panic. Marcher knows he is different, and the life he lives in public differs from the one he lives in private. When he realizes he should have desired May, he may be recognizing that he ought to have preferred women, as Eve Sedgwick argues. One might, however, argue that Marcher ought simply to have preferred something and found, rather than lost, his life.
Goodheart, Eugene. “What May Knew in ‘The Beast in the Jungle,’ ” Sewanee Review 61 (2003): 116–27.
James, Henry. Complete Stories. New York: Library of America, 1996.
Johnson, Courtney. “John Marcher and the Paradox of the ‘Unfortunate’ Fall,” Studies in Short Fiction 6 (1969): 121–35.
Sedwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.