How does Henry James invert the expectations of a novel through inactivity and ambiguity?
A novel is typically described as something that contains both ‘character and action’. Henry James inverts this by including character, yet very little action. The social scene at the beginning of the novella almost promises an exciting text of social interaction and scandal. Instead, this is the only public place –aside from the brief mentions of the opera –that is described. James therefore uses this structure of inactivity to truly reflect his theme of wasted life. Nothing significant seems to happen in The Beast in the Jungle, and nothing is supposed to happen. As Marcher spends his entire life anticipating a great event, as does the reader in making their way through James’ prose. They too, are waiting for the beast to strike. When it inevitably does not, the supposed definition of a novel that contains ‘action’ is not fulfilled. This subverts the reader from all they are familiar with in fiction, and creates the same sense of uncomfortable displacement that Marcher experiences throughout his entire life.
What are the possibilities of what/who the ‘beast’ is? What seems the strongest argument?
John Marcher seemingly has only one purpose in life: to encounter the ‘beast in the jungle’ and discover what, or who it truly is. As James does not provide a definite answer to this question, for either Marcher or the readership, the identity of the ‘beast’ can only be speculations. What is clarified early on by Marcher is that the ‘beast’ is his fate, and can therefore materialize as a person, or an event. As a person, the ‘beast’ could possibly be May Bartram, his female companion, the man at the cemetery, or a person that has not yet entered his life. If the beast is perhaps instead an event, it could be any number of occurrences or self realizations that change Marcher’s life. The strongest argument, and one many critics support, is perhaps that the Beast is a presence that exists only to suggest it does not exist. It represents Marcher’s wasted existence in waiting for an event that will never materialize in reality; the beast will never strike, and remain constantly crouching.
How is this novella a love story? How is it not?
Upon first read, Henry James’ novella seems as far removed as possible from the traditional love story. From previous literary romance conventions, it is expected that Marcher will eventually realize he loved May from the beginning, and they will live the rest of their days together. As this does not occur, it is automatically dismissed to another genre. Yet, it can be argued as a less traditional love story. Whilst Marcher does not reciprocate the feelings, May dedicates her entire life to his endeavors. This level of sacrifice is something that can only be motivated by love. Even after Marcher makes it abundantly clear that May will never be more than a companion to ‘watch’ his future with, May remains by his side. This novella is thus also a story of unrequited love. It is perhaps not immediately recognized as this, as the feelings of infatuation are never uttered, not even by the narrator.
Would Marcher truly have been saved if he had loved May? Would he have ‘lived’?
As John Marcher despairs that he has wasted his life, he claims that the answer to a fulfilling life was to love May. This could be true, as it would provide Marcher with love, affection, and perhaps a family. He also assumes that marrying May would be a complete distraction from ‘watching’ his future, and the possibly immanent beast. Yet, this must be examined. Marcher already spends the majority of his time with May, and he effectively grows old with her. And still, he is obsessed with his fate. He then assumes that creating an emotional bond between the two of them would almost cure him of his obsession. Instead, it is possible that the love would merely exist as second to his obsession with the beast. Marcher could have loved May, but it would never be strong enough to completely erase his twisted mind.
How does James use narrative techniques to an effect?
In this novella, Henry James uses a third person narrative. First of all, this presents a distance between the narration and the characters. It seems May and Marcher seem less like personable characters with idiosyncratic attributes, and more as people in a book, or a myth told long ago. Despite this third person narration, the narrative voice is privy to very little information. Both Marcher and May’s thoughts are kept within their own heads, and the narration does little to explain the motive behind either of their actions. This helps to emphasize the sense of mystery and almost senselessness in Marcher’s every action; neither the reader nor the narrator is aware of his motives, and his choices therefore seem ever the more pointless.
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