The Warning in The Beast in the Jungle

The Warning in The Beast in the Jungle

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The Warning in The Beast in the Jungle

 

 

     "In the case of Henry James there should not be much dispute about the

exactness and completeness of the representation; no man ever strove more

studiously or on the whole more successfully to reproduce the shape and

color and movement of his     æsthetic experience." These are the remarks

of Stuart P. Sherman from his article entitled "The Aesthetic Idealism of

Henry James," from The Nation, p. 397, April 5, 1917. Now, some seventy-two

years later critical readers are still coming to terms with James'

aesthetic vision. As we have discussed in class, James aestheticizes

everything. Sexual intercourse, carnal knowledge, painful self-discovery,

human mortality, etc., are often figuratively and metaphorically veiled so

as not to disturb or repulse the reader. Taking a closer look at this, one

might say that James did this so that he himself would not be repulsed.

Perhaps James wasn't thinking so much of the reader as he was thinking of

himself.

 

     In "The Beast in the Jungle" James has aesthetically hidden the

reality of Marcher's destiny by treating it as a symbolic crouching beast

waiting to spring. The reader will ask why James has done this? Wouldn't it

be more effective to speak plainly of Marcher's and Bartram's relationship?

The author could tell us exactly why John Marcher does not marry May

Bartram. The narrator tells us that Marcher's situation "was not a

condition he could invite a woman to share" and "that a man of feeling

didn't  cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger hunt" (p. 417).

This is nonsense. Marcher won't marry May because he doesn't want to

inconvenience her with his condition or endanger her life on a tiger hunt?

First of all, he inconveniences her right up to the day of her death with

his condition, and as for the metaphorical tiger hunt, what exactly does

that refer to? What is it here that James will not speak of in plain

language? Simply what is the meaning of this; what is the author's intent?

     One might speculate that this story is somewhat autobiographical in

that James himself never married and often carried on close personal

relationships with a very select few. The various biographers of his life

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have brought to light a number of respectable ladies and men with whom

James was personally and privately acquainted. There is also the belief

that everything an author produces is autobiographical to a certain extent.

And supposing "The Beast in the Jungle" is largely autobiographical, once

again I ask what was James' intention? Is the story so autobiographical

that James felt it necessary to create an elaborate smoke-screen to elude

the critics of its true meaning in view of his personal life? Was the

aesthetic curtain drawn to protect his privacy? I believe this to be the

case, yet it seems to me that "The Beast in the Jungle" might also be read

as a warning to people who behave much like Marcher. Perhaps James is

saying one should not be foolish with the precious time of one's life. I

believe Krishna Vaid would agree with me; Vaid states:"The wider thematic

context of 'The Beast' is perhaps too obvious to merit more than a bare

mention: it is a 'fantastic' embodiment of the central Jamesian theme of

the unlived life"(Vaid p. 224). Readings and interpretations on James'

intent vary widely.

 

     For this brief examination I have acquired around ten different

sources. There was also an exchange of ideas in our February 28th class on

other critical works which I will attempt to deal with. In some ways the

criticism I have found is rather uniform, but on some points it differs

considerably. I shall start with the common parts of the criticism. Because

"The Beast in the Jungle" is a rather short work, the majority of these

critics tend to summarize the entire story instead of concentrating on one

or two significant aspects. I have found they are in general agreement that

May Bartram is the figurative "Beast." Allen Tate says "As May Bartram

stands before [Marcher], 'all soft,' it is marcher's Beast which has leaped

at him from his jungle" (Tate p. 77). Walter Wright comments "[Marcher]

sees the beast in not one but two symbolic images. Thinking again of the

last parting, he sees the beast as having then sprung:'it had sprung in

that cold April when...she had risen from her chair' "(italics mine)

(Wright p. 199). Donna Przybylowicz explains that "The pursuit of

[Marcher's] beast reveals a void... for, although he first sees in it, and

in May as well, a reflection of his own desires and hopes, later it mirrors

not only her demise but his inevitable death as well," and also "Marcher

feels that May's dying...was what he had figured as the beast in the

jungle" (Przybylowicz pp. 96 & 97). I admit that I have loosely construed

the notion of May as the beast in the latter two critics, but if the

springing of the beast is equated with any movement on the part of May, I

ultimately feel compelled to note the two springing motions as the acts of

one body.

 

     A number of the critics I have read mention Marcher's waiting, his

anticipating of his big moment, the realization of the Beast of his destiny.

Charles Hoffman explains "John Marcher is singularly dedicated to waiting

for the worst of all imaginable things to happen to him" (Hoffman p. 99).

Edward Stone dwells on this same point but with more emphasis on the

story's structure and symbolism; he refers " to the obvious key [of] the

hero's monotonously methodical progress toward his unwitting doom as it

immediately appears to us in his name, Marcher " (Stone p. 122). As what I

see in direct antithesis to Stone, Przybylowicz states that "Marcher lives

passively in expectation of an ... unknown destiny and expresses neither a

desire to direct his own life nor any interest in any genuine futural

possibilities" and also "He allows experience to act upon him and sits

passively, awaiting the spring of the formidable beast" (Przybylowicz pp.

93 & 109). How is it that Stone sees the hero as a progressing methodical

march-er towards destiny, when to march implies that the marcher has a

sense of the location of his march? Whereas Przybylowicz explains John

Marcher as passive and having no "desire to direct his own life." And in

opposition to Przybylowicz, Edward Wagenknecht calls Marcher blind in

regard to his wait and maintains "Life offers its best to him, and he

passes it by, not because he does not value or desire it but simply because

he does not recognize it" (Wagenknecht p. 148). Somehow Wagenknecht finds

that Marcher does indeed value things while Przybylowicz says he does not.

How can I, now a student of criticism, resolve these opposing stances? I

find that these opposing positions represent an immense problem in the

study of Marcher's character. By believing that Marcher does or does not

desire life's best the critical reader can come away from the story with

one of two entirely different interpretations. If I believe that Marcher

involves himself in life, I will feel sympathetic towards him at the end of

the story. If I believe Marcher is in fact passive, then I can say he gets

everything he deserves at the conclusion. To further complicate this issue,

Wright says "[Marcher] has already become so immersed in his pursuit of his

special fate that he no longer believes he is seeking it" (Wright p. 194).

I believe Wright would side with Wagenknecht against Przybylowicz on this

point. I have to side with Przybylowicz bcause if Marcher had actually

pursued life he would have found his destiny. Instead Marcher's fate is

only revealed to him at the conclusion of the story. It all kind of gets

back to the proverb " seek and ye shall find." I think Marcher neither

values his life or seeks his destiny.

 

     Practically all ten or so of my critics deal with the image of the

springing beast. Yet as not to bore my reader with the tediousness of

exploring all of the critics' rather redundant passages, I will dwell on

just a few of what I find the more interesting explanations. Immediately I

find that Richard Hocks views the beast unlike the rest of my critics in

that he says "the beast that springs in the tale is not so much any

particular point in the story as it is a kind of slow motion springing

that begins with the first line and completes itself with the last" (Hocks

p. 184). Wright, with May in mind, claims that "Unlike Marcher, who can see

his fate only as a beast which will sometime jump, [May] sees it as

something always at work" (Wright p. 196). This point is very much in line

with Hocks statement. With these two views in mind, we can envision the

beast in the action of a slow motion springing, constant throughout the

story. Yet Wright also goes on to say that when Marcher "senses ... that

[May] is dying, he feels that his own life will end, indeed that her death

represents, after all, the leap of the beast" (Wright p. 198). Wright

presents two entirely different views of the beast, which is surprisingly

something that our class has not hit on yet. Marcher and May each have

their own view of the beast. I ask, whose view do we follow? Can we accept

both characters' views? I think we can. May is Marcher's beast in that she

possesses the knowledge of his fate, and Marcher, I think, can be deemed

May's beast, after all, he pounces or springs upon her as she rests in her

grave at the end of the story. To embellish my perception, Wagenknecht

states "The Beast had sprung at last, and we leave Marcher, in his awakened

anguish, flung face downward, upon May's grave. Knowledge has come at last"

(Wagenknecht pp. 149-150). Although Wagenknecht evades giving us his

interpretation of what the beast is, he at least implies that May having

passed on, has also passed on to Marcher the knowledge he believed her to

possess.

 

     In all of this criticism I did not find any mention of Marcher

experiencing homosexual panic. There is some talk about Marcher finding his

identity through May and how his egotism is the center of his private

universe, but I do not find the majority of these works to be on the

cutting edge of criticism. I have not found any inferences of homosexuality

or discussions considering the springing beast as the aggressivity of the

erecting phallus. Donna Przybylowicz is the only who stands apart from all

the critics I've read in that she makes mention of May's subjugation:"the

woman's needs are completely subordinated to those of the self-centered

male. As his alter ego, May does not live her own life but exists

vicariously through Marcher's limited experience of the world" (pp. 94-5).

While I am not sure of Krishna Vaid's gender, Donna Przybylowicz would

appear to be the only woman in the group of critics that I have assembled,

and it would appear a feminist as well.

 

     Now I shall try to tie this all together in a DeManian knot. First of

all, it is my understanding that critics attain their insight by being

blind to certain things. This blindness to aspects of the work causes the

critic to unconsciously discover the form and unity of the text in their

interpretations. There is also the idea that the natural form of the work

can not be found by exploring the rhetorical form of the text, because

everything that the words figuratively represent actually mean something

else. Mine is a very basic and loose understanding of course. What I want

to know is how do we decide if something stated by a critic is valid? For

example, Przybylowicz is blind to some things, but she has insight to the

notion that May's "needs are completely subordinated." And likewise Vaid

must be blind to some things as well, but makes a point of stating that

James' theme in "The Beast in the Jungle" is that of "the unlived life." I

could go on with this redundancy but that would be quite pointless. What

I'm trying to get at is this, are the critics' individual blindnesses the

insights of others and versa vice? I have a lot of trouble understanding

the concept of the correct misreading. It seems to me that according to de

Man's thoughts there is absolutely no way of truly correctly reading the

text. I am completely stumped and mystified. F.W. Dupee says "The Beast of

Marcher's fate is a figurative beast; Marcher's search for his past is a

figurative search" (Dupee p. 158). Again, my understanding is cloudy at

best: the critic is allowed to interpret the figurative usage of the author

in a way that only he is individually capable of? Perhaps the way to judge

the overall interpretation of a text is by seeing how many critics come up

with the same reading? Or, with this question, have I unwittingly fallen

into the trap of majority rule?

 

     I would now like to offer my view of the story as I close my

examination. I find my view of the story grounded largely in what I

consider biographical evidence. I believe that James' intent is one of

warning the readers not to waste their lives as Marcher has. James never

married, had a relationship with Ms. Woolson, (which I can't help but think

of as the source for his Bartram-Marcher relationship) and wrote this story

some twenty-odd years after his brother William married. Richard Hall

explains that it wasn't until the early 1900s that Henry was able to deal

with the inferiority complex that he felt in regard to his older brother

(Hall, part II, p. 26). Henry James must have sensed himself on a Marcher-

like path and caught himself just in time, otherwise he would not have been

able to write the story; he would have died before having the proper

knowledge. Actually, I could spend ten pages defending my view that this

story is autobiographical. But in so many words that is my understanding of

this material. Unfortunately, I feel that at the present time I can not

fully exhibit everything I've learned. I see my experience of this course

emerging more with the passing of time as I apply it to future coursework.
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