The Beast in the Jungle Symbols, Allegory and Motifs
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Written by Victoria Joss
The beast in the jungle is undoubtedly the most important symbol, and one that gives the novella its title. John Marcher believes that his fate is like a crouching beast among the grass, either waiting to slay him, or for Marcher to slay it. Firstly, the imagery of the ‘beast’ is both threatening and imposing; Marcher states that he knows not whether his fate will be terrible or brilliant, yet this symbolic connotation suggests it will be disastrous. Additionally, the position of the beast as crouching creates an artificial sense of constantly being watched, that prompts Marcher to believe he must observe it also. In using this symbol of the ‘beast’, James provides a metaphorical image to a concept that he leaves completely ambiguous to the reader. Marcher, May and the reader are provided with no information as to what this ‘beast’ is that will decide Marcher’s fate. Additionally, it is a symbol that may not be mentioned by name throughout the novella, but that is constantly present, as if watching the story unfold as it supposedly watches Marcher. Perhaps the most important aspect of this symbol is how James questions it’s very existence. Therefore, a possibility is also always present as to whether the beast will ever strike, or if it even exists to.
May Bartram, the young English woman that ‘watches’ John Marcher’s life with him, acts as both a character and a symbol. Her life centers on analyzing Marcher’s possible fate, and how it will alter his life. James allows her little dialogue outside this subject, and offers no information on her background, feelings or desires. She is therefore almost reduced from a character to a symbol of Marcher’s obsession. Her symbolic significance is perhaps most poignant at the end of the novella, where she loses her life to a blood disease. With her death, Marcher’s obsession changes slightly from waiting for fate to seize him, to questioning whether his fate has already occurred, or if the ‘beast’ could represent something different in his life. May’s death is also symbolic of how human life is wasted in this tale, mirroring Marcher’s own failure in collating any experiences throughout his life.
When May’s Aunt dies, she leaves her a sum of money that she uses to buy a residence in London. For a young, English woman, this should become a symbol of independence that lives on her own, and the freedom to enter the thriving, fashionable London scene. This expectation becomes redundant when John Marcher reappears in her life. In a traditional novel, Marcher and May would marry and the house would represent the beginnings of their matrimonial home. Yet the house symbolizes neither of these. Instead, it becomes a multifaceted symbol of May’s dedication to Marcher, and her loneliness. It is used as their meeting point to discuss Marcher’s fate, and the reader never witnesses anyone other than May’s maid also there. Inside the house, the hearth does not represent the warmth of family home, but has the more functional purpose of keeping May warm when she grows ill. Therefore, it is perhaps May’s status as unmarried that means her residence does not fulfill any of the symbolic expectations imposed upon it. It remains a house, not a home.
In Chapter Four, as May is weakening from her blood disease, James describes her as ‘the picture of a serene and exquisite but impenetrable sphinx’. This symbol is important to demonstrate how imperative May is as Marcher’s ‘watcher’. As the only person that knows Marcher’s secret, his trust and sense of community begins and ends with her. Thereby, when she becomes as ‘impenetrable’ as a marble statue, Marcher experiences true loneliness once again. Whilst May is still physically alive her use to him has ended, as she can no longer discuss his impending fate. It is also important that May maintains an exterior poise that is ‘serene and exquisite’. This acts as a reminder to the reader of her potential value as a wife in maintaining her beauty up until her death. Finally, the lack of color must be considered. May is now pale, as life begins to leave her. This is symbolic of both how her years have been wasted on Marcher, and how his own joy will begin to drain out of life to a grey existence.
There are few settings in James’ novella: the garden party that Marcher and May meet at, May’s house, the occasional opera and finally, the cemetery. In placing the cemetery setting at the end, it becomes the ultimate representation of failure and loneliness. Marcher is forced to consider larger questions of existentialism, and how the dedication of May’s life to his caused, in reality, little impact. His visit to the cemetery therefore reveals a very morbid conclusion: that May’s friendship did little to personally aid him. This reinforces his obsession with his fate, and a failure to recognize the possibilities of a strong friendship, and possibly love. It also acts as the dramatic symbol of Marcher’s impending death, as he flings himself down on a tombstone at the end of the story. However, the most tragic part of this symbol is that Marcher has been metaphorically dead for almost his entire life; he has existed, not lived.
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