The Beast in the Jungle’ was written by Henry James in 1903. It was originally published in a volume of short stories, named The Better Sort. James wrote many psychological tales, such as ‘The Turn of the Screw’, however this novella was considered the most successful through its poignant theme of wasted life.
The novella follows the life of Henry Marcher, or rather the life he does not lead. He encounters May Bartram at a fashionable London party, and he realizes they met years before in Italy. She is the only person that knows his grave secret, that he believes he is destined for a higher purpose. She agrees to ‘watch’ his life with him, so that when the destined event does occur, both can recognize it. They live their lives together as friends, regularly talking of Marcher’s fate, that he refers to as ‘The Beast in the Jungle’. As they grow old, May is taken ill with a rare blood disease. She grows weaker, and comes to realize that Marcher’s fate was that he would waste his life waiting for something to happen to him. May dies, and Marcher leaves London for the delights of travel, beginning in India. He returns, and visits May’s grave. He sees a man in the cemetery, whose face embodies the true definition of grief. Marcher comes to a final, tragic realization that to ‘be nothing’ was the ultimate failure, and that he had wasted his life.
Henry James deals with themes of loneliness, loss, and larger questions of existentialism. He questions why a person exists, and what their purpose is in life. Whilst Marcher waits for something extraordinary to happen to him, he wastes a life where he could have made something happen. Whilst May’s thoughts on any subject but Marcher are not included in the narration, James explores loss in circumstances other than death. Marcher grieves over the death of his friend, whereas May had to live with a man who she possibly loved, but would not allow himself to love her. This ambiguity is key to James’ work, and his style constantly gives nothing away. Her actions and dedication suggest May’s love for Marcher, yet she never says it or indicates it clearly.
Critics have responded in particular to two aspects of the novella: this ambiguity, and the possibility of the tale being biographical. Many have suggested that the ambiguity surrounding Marcher’s bachelor status is actually masking his homosexuality. This idea is furthered in the final scene at the graveyard, where Marcher sees a man and has a realization; this could be interpreted as fully understanding grief, or fully understanding his own sexuality. Critics also suggest a biographical element to James’ tale. Henry James had many lady friends throughout his life, but never married. This is similar to Marcher, who fears he cannot marry May due to his condition, despite it being socially expected of him.
Henry James is a canonical American writer. His use of ambiguity, complicated narrations and inner monologues mean his work is regularly subject to analysis in higher education.