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Written by Victoria Joss
‘Something or other lay in wait for him, amid the twists and the turns of the months and the years, like a crouching Beast in the Jungle. It signified little whether the crouching Beast were destined to slay him or to be slain.’
John Marcher spends almost the entirety of James’ novella waiting for the ‘something or other [that] lay in wait for him’. This quote is therefore important as it simultaneously presents how Marcher creates this ‘something’ in to an image of a symbolic beast whilst also being unaware of any of it’s characteristics. The sense of unknown that follows Marcher through his life has many consequences, the most prominent being that Marcher is unaware of what he is waiting for, and therefore presumably cannot recognize when it has happened. This pointless anticipation is emphasized by the image of the ‘crouching’ beast, as it suggests a constant state of being watched, and possibly ambushed at any time. Despite this image being clear, Marcher is unsure whether he was ‘to slay him or be slain’. Yet, he answers this issue throughout his life without even realizing it. He waits to be slain, for a tragedy to occur. At no point does he decide to slay the beast, and stop waiting for something to happen to him.
‘His conviction, his apprehension, his obsession, in short, wasn't a privilege he could invite a woman to share.’
An important theme within this novella is loneliness, especially how Marcher unnecessarily inflicts it upon himself, even when he has May has a companion. This quote forms part of his explanation as to why he will not marry May, or any woman. It firstly suggests a sense of selflessness that Marcher does not want to include a wife in his ‘conviction’, something that is so inclusive of his whole being that it is almost a physical affliction. However, the word ‘privilege’ then rebukes this. It suggests that perhaps Marcher believes he is destined for something so great, or tragic, that a partner would not be able to comprehend, or understand fully what is meant to happen. This quote is also contradictory to Marcher’s actions. He claims he cannot invite a woman to share it as his wife, but asks May to watch it with him. This action completely de-sexualizes May, barely recognizing her as a female and disregarding her potential as a future wife.
‘So while they grew older together she did watch with him, and so she let this association give shape and colour to her own existence.’
As soon as May agrees to ‘watch’ Marcher’s life with him, his existence takes over her own. From then on, the narrative reflects this, presenting Marcher’s thoughts, and May’s reactions to them. The extent to which Marcher engulfs May is presented in James’ dramatic use of the phrase ‘existence’ instead of life. It suggests that not only does Marcher demand time and physical effort of this woman, he also demands that she offers her entire life purpose to him. For May, the ‘shape’ and ‘colour’ of her past, present and future is determined by Marcher’s beast. Yet Marcher is not presented a malicious character, as May is willing to ‘let’ him take everything of herself. Therefore, whilst James categorically never mentions love, or affection, there is certainly dedication of May’s whole life.
‘What's the most inveterate mark of men in general? Why the capacity to spend endless time with dull women--to spend it I won't say without being bored, but without minding that they are, without being driven off at a tangent by it; which comes to the same thing. I'm your dull woman, a part of the daily bread for which you pray at church. That covers your tracks more than anything.’
It is with this quote that May contemplates to Marcher her role in his life. Ultimately, she concludes that she is Marcher’s ‘cloak’ to society, so that he appears normal to the masses and avoids social scrutiny. This can be interpreted in one of two manners. The first possibility is that Marcher acts as his ‘dull woman’ so that he is not labeled as a strange and lonely old bachelor, when traditionally he would be married. In labeling herself as the stereotypical woman that men entertain themselves with, May reduces her identity to her role with Marcher alone, as a watcher. Secondly, critics have often suggested that May’s role is more dependent on her gender, and that her presence is Marcher’s way of attempting to conceal his homosexuality. Whilst again, James gives the reader no concrete evidence as to this theory, the man at the end of the story provides Marcher with an epiphany. This could either be one of the true meaning of grief, or that Marcher has been denying his true identity his entire life.
‘What if she should have to die before knowing, before seeing--?" It would have been brutal, in the early stages of her trouble, to put that question to her; but it had immediately sounded for him to his own concern, and the possibility was what most made him sorry for her.’
Whilst a large part of the narrative is devoted to trying to decipher what Marcher’s future holds, there are intervals when he considers the impact it may have on May’s life, and the feelings of guilt that are associated with these thoughts. This quote suggests that these feelings of guilt may be to help ease Marcher’s conscience. One of the first thoughts Marcher has when he hears May might have a life threatening illness is based on her value as his watcher, and not as a person with a life source. He acknowledges that it was a ‘brutal’ question so early on in the revelation, but that he cannot help but think of his ‘own concern’, negating any previous guilt and seeming selflessness Marcher displayed about May. This bluntness is emphasized by Marcher viewing her death as an inconvenience, as if May having to die is partly her fault. This quote is therefore important in showing how the beast takes over every one of Marcher’s thoughts, even in the face of death.
‘It had become suddenly, from her movement and attitude, beautiful and vivid to him that she had something more to give him; her wasted face delicately shone with it—it glittered almost as with the white lustre of silver in her expression.’
Throughout James’ novella, May is desexualized as defeminized by Marcher. She is originally described as beautiful, but there are no further attributions to her appearance. This moment where she seemed to ‘glitter’ with the realization could possibly be when she silently offers her love to Marcher, to accept if he will take it. This sudden burst of energy, ‘beautiful and vivid to him’ transforms May from a dying, old woman to the younger individual that Marcher could have chosen to have a fruitful life with. Yet James’ adjectives suggest the Marcher is once again too late; May’s face shines with wasted energy, implying that she not only has little to give but that Marcher does not understand. The ‘something more’ she has to give him could be her undying love, yet Marcher will only ever read this situation as more information on the beast. Arguably, the most tragic aspect of this novella is the lifetimes wastes of someone’s love.
‘She was "out of it," to Marcher's vision; her work was over; she communicated with him as across some gulf or from some island of rest that she had already reached, and it made him feel strangely abandoned.’
Once again, James presents the reader with a scene where the focus should be on May as a sick patient, yet it is centered on how she impacts Marcher’s life. He comments that May’s ‘work was over’, reducing her from a human with desire and needs, to someone who fulfilled a quota of work and was no longer relevant to him. This quote presents how, to ‘Marcher’s vision’, his companion may as well be dead. She now exists on an ‘island of rest’ that could be representative of two states. It can either equate to a physical sense where May is close to death and no longer seems to exist in the real world. It can also equate to May’s change in vision; she no knows what the beast in the jungle is but refuses to tell Marcher, meaning they are no longer united in their ‘watching’. Yet, even this exploration of May’s state is still brought quickly back to Marcher, and his feeling of abandonment. James’ technique in constantly focusing the prose on the beast aligns the reader with Marcher’s mindset, unable to read a few lines without returning to it.
‘The escape would have been to love her; then, then he would have lived.’
This quote is from the tragic self-realization that Marcher spent so long waiting for his fate to happen to him, that he missed a good woman’s love. Whilst James does not explicitly say that May loves him, or allows her dialogue proclaiming her affections, it is assumed from the dedication of her life to him, and the fact that she remembers him straight away. The tragedy therefore lies in Marcher realizing too late that May could have saved him. It is ironic that he spent his entire life, watching with May, for the fated event to happen, when the event could have been May if he had allowed it. He describes her love as ‘the escape’, as it would have prevented his obsessing over an event that is yet to happen. James perhaps suggests that one cannot wait for a moment to happen, but that one has to make it occur. There is much emphasis in James’ novella on the verbs ‘have’ and ‘had’, on what is to occur and what has already occurred. In this quote, Marcher realizes one of the many events that could ‘have’ occurred, if only he had let it.
‘When the possibilities themselves had accordingly turned stale, when the secret of the gods had grown faint, had perhaps even quite evaporated, that, and that only, was failure. It wouldn't have been failure to be bankrupt, dishonoured, pilloried, hanged; it was failure not to be anything.’
Marcher has previously realized that ‘it was failure not to be anything’. However, this quote takes his epiphany further. He realizes that life is not about waiting for one event, and his anticipation of possibilities that is living. Once again, he only comes to this conclusion retrospectively, when the ‘possibilities themselves were stale’. It is tragically ironic that Marcher spends his youth deliberating on a future event, only to reach the future of old age and discover he is still waiting for it. This quote also draws on the larger theme of regret. Traditionally, most people regret all the good things they did not manage to achieve in their life. Marcher has lived so little that he wishes even to experience failure, just for something to feel. Further irony accompanies Marcher’s belief that he was being saved for something special, only for him to ‘not be anything’, not even average.
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