Living the Wasted Life: “The Beast in the Jungle”

A paper I wrote during my Undergrad studies reformatted as a speech I gave at the same University.

Author: Henry James
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company


The story of The Beast in the Jungle is to many a great unrealized romance. Throughout the tale, there are underlying sexual tensions, unrequited love, and overwhelming heartbreak, the loss of which being the climax and the doom. Perhaps, though, some may read the story as a tragedy rather than a romance. Through the selfish nature of Marcher, the death of his friend May, and the doom lurking behind the corner of every page, there seems to be more hurt than heart. The foundation of the book rests on a tension between love and selfishness. Undoubtedly, Henry James created this story of love and selfishness intentionally, knowing the lessons that could be made with them. Indeed, James did not simply write this story to appease a few minutes of selfish desire entertained by a thrilling romance. Instead, James used his words to teach an overarching truth, an everlasting truth. He edified his readers in what many probably never even considered in their lives, much less between the pages of his story. The Beast in the Jungle is a metaphor for everyone’s lives, though well disguised; much like the message it represents, it must be worked at to be understood. In a form of what I consider to be an extension of the allegory, this story presents how many people live their lives without true Love, wasting them because they intentionally do not embrace the Love which has always been before them, rejecting and replacing it with the self, a practice always ending in destruction. All of this is done with a love story, one that in reality often plays out much the same: tragically, because of willful ignorance.

James is clever in how he writes because he does not initially offer up the overarching point he will make with the story. First, there is much in the way of evidence that James places in order to lead the reader to believe that Marcher and May’s relationship is one of unreciprocated love, a romance never embraced, one that even Marcher once pretends to conjure and with no success (480). As James writes, “They looked at each other as with the feeling of an occasion missed,” which hints strongly to tension and mutual, probably romantic, feelings (479). Before much of the mystery in the story is revealed, May asks him, “Has it ever happened?” giving implication of sexuality, though never engaged in, perhaps even wondering if he will engage with her (481). Even a reference to having “taken” someone, alluding to intercourse, is made (481). As the story progresses, the reader learns more, and often will focus more, on all that they frequently do together, such as their meetings becoming a “daily habit” and their “anniversary,” for so many years, watching with giddy hopefulness that they, like some creatures of a century-old romance novel, will get together. James notes that May to Marcher never “chaffed him nor betrayed him” and they had a “goodly bond” all because she loved him wholeheartedly (484, 7, 8). In chapter II, James recounts on how May loved him without regard to his fault, loved him without humor, believed in him fully, making his life part of hers (485, 6).

Despite this, Marcher, in his selfish nature, refuses to marry her (485). Towards the end, when she becomes sick, he acquired a feeling of “the growth of losing her by some catastrophe,” a feeling so deep that people usually do not experience the emotion without the loss of a spouse or near family member (492). Even so, Marcher remained selfish because all he truly cared about was knowledge, and knowing what she had seen in him that was approaching, or had always been, to overcome him (492). From the beginning, James seems to be claiming that John Marcher was an egoist who had made himself believe he cannot marry because of this impending doom he feels. While May was dying, her passing “made him feel strangely abandoned.” (494) At her end, May feverishly tried to convey her love for him, calling him “my dear,” pleading with him, “Don’t you know – now?”, struggling to grasp the fact that he does not love her, does not see her for who she is (495, 8). “What was to be” will never know because he cannot accept the fact that “his other” truly and deeply cares for him (498, 504). At the end, Marcher visited his friend, May Bartram’s, grave for the last time and realized that he has to that moment wasted his life because, as James implies, he did not love this woman.  So, they both die alone.

And yet, this romance is not the ultimate message the story conveys, that romantic love is all we need not to live a wasted life. Instead, this story was only the material by which to convey a deeper truth about life. By means of the unrequited love between May Bartram and John Marcher, James’ words metaphorically convey the message of Christ’s enduring love for His creation. Christ’s love for us is often described as a marriage relationship, so it is no wonder why James used a rejected marriage in order to convey this truth. In their essence, these two characters represent the struggle people searching for knowledge go through, though never finding, all the while ignoring the Love, which is Christ, the embodiment of Truth, that is before them constantly. Marcher, of course, is the wandering man while May is representative of Christ’s love.

What might initially seem as a calling to the Romantic period, James’ description of May when he says, “She was the consequence of things suffered,” is actually extending to Christ (478). He came to Earth in consequence of our suffering, a result of our sin. May’s unwavering devotion to Marcher to aid him in understanding his sense of impending doom is much like how Christ stands by us through our suffering and, before we knew Him, calls to us through His love. Also, she, as Christ does, recognized that the impending doom was Marcher’s lack of love and the weight of sin. She knew that her love would never be repaid, just as Christ knew He is the only one who could pay and does not require us to work towards salvation. He knows our inadequacy and His purpose, and is steadfast in love bedsides.  May said to Marcher that her “curiosity,” or God’s active interest in our lives, would result in being “but too well repaid” as it results in death (489). For May, she dies in the end with full knowledge that her devotion to Marcher would never be understood just as Christ died with the foreknowledge that we neither understand His love nor what His sacrifice meant. In fact, May sacrificed the remainder of her life to be with Marcher just as Christ made the ultimate sacrifice with His life for ours. May yearns with Marcher towards her end when she says,  “’I’m with you, – don’t you see? – still.… I haven’t forsaken you’” (496).  The phrase “forsaken you” can hardly be ignored, as it pulls so strongly at some of the final words of Christ on the cross. But just as God does not force us to accept His free gift, neither does May, though she pleads, “’It’s never too late’” and “‘Don’t you know – now?’” (497, 8).

Sadly, the character of John Marcher is much like every man on earth and does not see May’s gift for what it is. James writes, “Giving her all, giving her life… He had lived by her aid” (499). Even in making one of his “pilgrimages” to May’s grave, like some monk to a sacred site, he did not yet fully realize that, in his core, he needed her and could do nothing on his own to heal himself (503). He kept on a mask from which “looked the eyes of an expression not in the least matching the other features” (487). He wore this mask much in the way that people wear a mask in futile attempts to look perfect, yet with eyes revealing the hopelessness underneath, the life without Christ. John Marcher is a lost soul, stuck in a mind of egoism because he saw May as one who needed to be repaid as he felt the need to be repaid (488). He did not actually understand her altruism, and neither do people comprehend God and His sacrifice. Both are a mystery. But Marcher’s impending doom was real—his consequence the sin in the world. And yet Love was there all along, and he ignored that knowledge because it was something he did not want to understand. He remained selfish by keeping his impending event his “own,” failing to understand how real that doom was (488). Marcher ignored the self-inflicted miserableness. He did not see the truth until she was long dead, or at least gone from his life, as many live when they push God away from their lives. James writes near the end that “what he presently stood there gazing at was the sounded void of his life,” and gives the answer that, “she was what he had missed” (506). Just like the Lost in this world, Marcher stood there to “stupidly stare at the escape she offered him” (506). “This was knowledge” Marcher admits, yet found out too late that some truths are not as great as the Truth.

Marcher’s problem is one and the same with the burden that faces each and every person. Like most people, especially in the Western world, he thought “that all sides are the same…” meaning that there is not one truth (500). John Marcher was selfish in that he thought only of himself, believed himself to be enough. He was obsessed with knowledge to the point that he wasted his life away. He succumbed to the law, which he thought was of the world and fate, but, in actuality, is of the Law of sin and death. Like mankind, Marcher felt there was “sooner or later” some terrible fate that was to befall him (482). Most people, especially those afraid to die, feel this dread. That dread he felt was the weight of the Law, which is judging us all, though Marcher did not know that judgement until the end (499). “I’m only afraid of ignorance to-day – I’m not afraid of knowledge.” (496) Yet what he found in the end was a truth he had willfully ignored.

For us, the problem is that we also keep out God’s love, as Marcher did (483). He had been holding on to himself for so long he did not even realize that the thing he was avoiding—marriage and love—which May told him was not the tremendous thing he feared, was what he had needed all along. He relied too much on chance and circumstance instead of what was solidly there (484). Instead of confessing what was in his heart, he kept everything to himself, “Carrying his concentrated burden,” like Pilgrim at the start of his journey, and “promised himself to be much on his guard… to be selfish” (485). He kept on a mask and in looking for what haunted him, “acutely” missed that which condemned and that which saved (487, 502).

All of this is said by James to make the point that we are John Marcher and we must not let Truth and Love—real knowledge and God’s love—slip past us. We are lost people, wandering in the world feeling “abominably alone” when all the while we are not “alone a bit” (482). Without Christ, we truly are dead while we live, making our lives a waste.

At the end of the story, Marcher observed a man by a grave who is bleeding and can “yet live.” James’ point with this scene was that Marcher observed a man who either had wandered from the truth for a while or, and more closely understood by many and Marcher, was separated from that Love we yearn for in our core. We are meant to be loved by Christ. We are also made to love Him in return. This simile of marriage and love between May and Marcher is much like the love between Christ and His Church, a covenant believers are a part of. When people ignore that contract and calling, they search their whole lives to fill that void, futilely trying to substitute for something that cannot be replaced by anything else (506). This is the crux of our lives.

Through this story, James makes the point that it is a danger to ourselves to become used to this sense of danger. As I would put it, it is a danger to become desensitized to sin. Marcher, through the course of his life, “lost” his “sense” of danger, a parallel to how the man of the self loses his sense of sin (489). James’ crouching beast in the jungle could be many things: doom, Marcher himself, sin, or Satan (486). The Beast in the Jungle warns readers that one should not waste life by thinking only about the self (493). What else do we have to live for if God and His love do not exist (505)? Why else should we live if not to be loved and to love in return? Shall we too come to the end of our stories and be “stupefied at the blindness” we cherished, ignoring the escape offered us, or accept the gift freely given us (506)? Because if we do not, there will be no avoiding our fate, for even John Marcher ended in death (506).


Works Cited

James Henry. “The Beast in the Jungle.” Vol. C. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. E vols. 478- 9; 480-9; 492-9; 500, 502-5. Print.

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