Henry James’ novella begins at a luncheon that John Marcher has been invited to, at an extravagant house in London. On this October afternoon, he meets May Bartram. John muses that he has perhaps met her before, and as they converse he tries to place her face. He describes her as ‘distinctly handsome’ but much older than when they previously met. As May approaches him, she remembers John Marcher very well.
Marcher feels guilty for not remembering May straight away, and blurts out that he remembers all about her from Rome eight years ago, when they met previously. Whilst May is happy that he remembers, she corrects him. It was in Naples they met, and ten years ago. She recalls the company they correct, and an incident at Pompeii where a thunderstorm forced them to take refuge. Marcher wishes that a romantic incident had happened between them in Naples, such as saving her from a capsized boat, so that there would be some substance and history to this meeting. They both silently acknowledge an attraction between the two and Marcher wonders why their reunion was not earlier.
May tells Marcher she remembers a great secret he once told her in Sorrento. She asks him if he is still of that kind, yet Marcher still doesn’t remember what he told her. She asks him ‘Has it ever happened?’ and Marcher pales, astonished that he revealed his secret to May. She is the only person in the world to know. Marcher asks how he revealed it to May, and she tells him what he said. From a very early age, Marcher had the ‘sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possible prodigious and terrible’ that would happen, and was constantly waiting for the event. May asks him if the event could be falling in love, and Marcher denies this; he has already been in love, and it has not been overwhelming enough for it to be the grand event.
Together, they further dissect what Marcher thinks the event will be. May asks him if he is afraid, but he does not know. He asks if she will watch with him, and she agrees to.
May recalls the time in London she spent with her aunt, and the visits that she took with Marcher to the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum. May’s aunt has died and left her a large sum of money in the will, and she decides to buy a home in London with it to stay close to Marcher.
Marcher tries to remember that whilst May watches with him, she has a life where remarkable things could happen to her. He is constantly unsettled in life, yet considers himself selfless and good mannered. This is his justification for now being selfish and taking a lot of May’s adult life for his own. He considers marrying her, but decides this is out of the question as it was not a ‘privilege he could invite a woman to share’. He describes the something that lies in wait for him as the ‘crouching Beast in the Jungle’, waiting to slay him or be slain. Marcher muses to May that perhaps the good circumstances he has felt approaching is her move to London, but May refuses to believe that so special a suspense could lead to such a boring conclusion.
Their friendship is described as Marcher having ‘a screw loose for her but she liked him in spite of it’, and continued to be Marcher’s keeper in the world. The rest of the world thought Marcher to be queer, but May is the only person who knows why. When in society, Marcher wears a ‘mask painted with the social simpler’, and only May looked him directly in the eyes and learned the real truth about him.
They grow old together, and May continues to dedicate her life to watching Marcher. They are lucky that society is generally unobservant, so they can carry on being slightly queer without much reaction. One Sunday, it is May’s Birthday and Marcher brings her a small trinket. May comments that she is Marcher’s ‘dull woman’, who makes him appear to society as a normal gentleman. He asks her if she feels cheated, that she has no-one to ‘save’, to watcher her. She replies that fate will come, and insinuates that it possibly already has. Marcher questions her meaning, and asks her if she is now afraid of fate, as she asked Marcher at the luncheon long ago. May states that she thinks Marcher’s attitude is heroic, and he is so accustomed to waiting in fear that he no longer feels it.
May tells Marcher that this isn’t the end of their watch, and that Marcher still has everything to see. He asks why she hasn’t, and she will not tell him as she is afraid of his reaction. She tells him he’ll never find out.
Marcher feels as if he has continued to uphold his selfless attitude, and takes May out the opera several nights a month. He asks her again what saves her from public scrutiny, and she tells him that she is still very much talked about. She tells Marcher that her intimacy with him is always questioned, but all that she cares about is helping him ‘pass for a man like another’.
As their lives together continue, Marcher begins to feel an increasing dread that May will be taken from him by a catastrophe. May eventually tells him she was scared she had a disease of the blood. Marcher is most concerned that May will die before seeing his event, and knowing his fate. Marcher continues to visit her at her house, and she is constantly seated by the fire in an old-fashioned armchair that she can now scarce leave. May begins to look old to him, as she had grown old.
Marcher begins to wonder if the fate he was always destined for was seeing May pass away from him. He begins deep contemplation, wondering what everything meant: May, her waiting with him, and her probable death. He wonders if it is simply too late and he has wasted his life waiting. Marcher realizes that his failure is in having done nothing with his life, and instead waited for something to happen to him. He believes he has been ‘sold’ in to this life.
One spring afternoon, Marcher goes to visit May in her house. It is a warm pleasant day, yet when he visits her she looks like a wax figure. He can start to feel that she is slipping away from him, and feels ultimately alone. He asks May if she will tell him what she knows before he dies, as he feels that he has spent his whole life imagining tragedy rather. May questions whether they ever looked each other in the face, perhaps in terms of intimacy, and tells him that her belief would be the worst thing to happen to him. He begs her to tell him.
Marcher accuses May of leaving him by refusing the secret, and she comments that she would never. She reveals that her belief is something new, different to what she previously thought. He asks if the belief is that he made a mistake in his life. She tells him it is never too late, and the pair share a moment where Marcher recognizes that May always had more to give him.
He asks her to reveal to him the secret, and she says ‘Don’t you know –now?’ Marcher is oblivious to her meaning, which even the reader is not sure of.
Marcher returns the next day, but May is too weak to see him. He is angry, and goes to the Park where they frequently visited. He was convinced that May’s death was the Beast in the Jungle, but after their conversation he is now not sure. May tells Marcher that the thing they have been waiting for since their youth has finally come. She tells him that the strangeness he has been waiting for is the fact that he is not aware of what has touched him. She tells him that he does not know it, but it is enough that she knows what has touched him.
May and Marcher have a heated discussion where Marcher demands to know what suffering he will have to endure in the future. May is passionate that she would wait with him longer if she could, and urges him not to suffer. At the cemetery, Marcher questions whether he should have realized this earlier in life, and begun ‘further back’ to begin living. The narrator establishes that Marcher’s tragedy is that he waded through the grass, looking for a beast that did not exist and wholly missing it also.
May had forbidden Marcher from guessing what the beast was, but it now takes over his life. He decides to leave London, visiting May’s grave one more time. He kneels on her grave in despair, hoping to find the secret, but it is to no avail.
Marcher leaves, going to the depths of Asia. Yet none of the natural beauties seem worthy in comparison to the light that May gave him, and his visit is prompt. He realizes that whatever he waiting to happen, had happened. He finally decides to settle on merely living, with the sense that his entire identity is based on the fact that he had once lived.
A year passes since May’s death, and an event happens at the cemetery that moves him more than the impression of Egypt or India ever could. One autumn afternoon, he sees a male figure at a nearby grave. He is shocked when he sees the other man’s face. As the man passes Marcher, he is overwhelmed by the grief that he clearly feels, and wonders what loss he had suffered.
He feels a pang, and a realization occurs. He now understands that in waiting for the event, the wait was ‘itself a portion’ of his life. He realizes that he would have been able to live if he had been able to love May. The realization that he has done nothing, lived a pointless life becomes the Beast that now pounces. His eyes darken, and he flings himself down on the tomb.