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Written by Victoria Joss
The irony of Marcher remembering so little of May, the only person he told his secret to
The first irony of James’ novel happens within the first few paragraphs. At the fashionable London party, John Marcher vaguely remembers May Bartram’s face, but struggles to place who she exactly is, and where they have met before. It is therefore ironic that May remembers him accurately from so many years before, and that she reveals she knows his secret. The readers, and May, soon discover that she is the only person whom he has ever told. Ironically, Marcher has spent years of his life feeling alone and without anyone to share the burden of his secret whilst there was already a person he had bequeathed it too. This is reflective of a larger irony, where Marcher feels he is given nothing in life, when in reality he is gifted May.
The irony of spending a lifetime waiting for your fate to occur
The largest, and most frustrating irony in this novella encompasses John Marcher’s entire life. He dedicates his entire existence to waiting for a spectacular, or terrifying fate to take hold of him. In this act of waiting, he loses an entire lifetime that could have been filled with travel, friendship and love. It is perhaps the most tragically ironic when Marcher realizes that his fate is neither spectacular nor terrific, and more importantly that it will not happen to him. James uses such a poignant irony to perhaps raise some questions about fate and destiny; the reader questions whether our lives are predestined or if we decide our own course. This sense of irony is carried throughout the entire plot, and Marcher only realizes the irony of his nothingness at the end.
The irony of May's death awakening Marcher to his own life realisations
Marcher and May spend their entire lives in a state of anticipation, an almost trance in ‘watching’ for the beast in the jungle to strike. Despite it being Marcher’s premonitions, May seems to whole-heartedly believe them also. It is only when she begins to approach death that May realizes that Marcher’s life has been a waste, and his fate may already have happened to him. Similarly, Marcher realizes his wasted life after the death of May, when he is truly left with nothing. It is therefore sadly ironic that Marcher only becomes aware of the importance of life after facing May’s death, and inevitably his. After May dies, he travels to exotic foreign locations, and attempts to seek new experiences. Yet he does this out of grief, and not a penchant for life. Marcher only realizes the value of living once he has little time left to do it.
The irony of Marcher believing he can never share his secret with a female
As a bachelor who has recently acquired a female acquaintance, the reader automatically questions whether Marcher will begin to love May Bartram. This question is directly answered by James’ narrative, where Marcher states he feels he cannot share his ‘privilege’ with a woman, and therefore actively chooses to not get married. Yet, he has already burdened May with the secret, suggesting that he it is now possible that he could wed her. Yet Marcher refuses to acknowledge the responsibility and continues only as May’s companion. It is therefore ironic that Marcher consumes May’s time, thoughts and life as a husband would, but without the legal responsibility of loving and caring for her. This sense of irony extends to Marcher’s feelings of loneliness also, as he believes he has no choice but to live a life in solitude without the opportunity of marriage. In reality, the ideal candidate is standing before him at all times, the only person who is already burdening his secret.
The irony of wanting to appear completely normal to society
There is a point in James’ novella where May Bartram discusses her role in Marcher’s life; she acts as his pseudo-wife, to make him appear as a normal man to society. Yet, there is a huge irony in the difference how Marcher wants society to view him, and how he views himself. In believing that he is destined for a greater fate, this identifies him as more important and special than the average person. In keeping it a secret, it questions whether Marcher believes it will actually occur; in not revealing himself to societies eye, he can remain protected and in his fantasy. A deeper irony also lies in this suggestion. Marcher is keen to appear normal to society, when in fact this is also the truth: he is a completely average individual.
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