Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
James seems to have been going through an emotional crisis when he wrote “The Beast in the Jungle,” for The Ambassadors (1903), the novel that he completed just before it and to which, in a way, the short story is a pendant, is also concerned with the waste of life. Its protagonist, Lambert Strether, has known love, but for a generation he has been a widower whose only role in life has been to edit a little magazine in a bleak New England town. When he goes to Paris at the age of fifty-five, he too has an emotional crisis that causes him to cry out, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether feels that for him, it is too late; he has, so to speak, missed the train. In fact, however, he still has a chance, whereas for Marcher, it is indeed too late. May Bartram is dead, the chance of love irrevocably beyond recall. His special fate is not to have had his life. The irony is that he has not even missed it until the final revelation. James valued his characters by their degree of awareness, and Marcher is supremely unaware until too late. His obsession with the special fate that he calls the beast in the jungle has so absorbed him that he has not realized that in waiting for it, he has lost everything else. At the end, he does not even have the beast to wait for any longer; it has already sprung, and he is left...
(The entire section is 656 words.)
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‘‘The Beast in the Jungle’’ is a story about a man who believes in fate, most particularly his own: ‘‘It isn’t a matter as to which I can choose, I can decide for a change. It isn’t one as to which there can be a change. It’s in the lap of the gods. One’s in the hands of one’s law—there one is.’’ Arguably, due to Marcher’s fate turning out to be the opposite of what he expects, James could be said to be mocking the pretensions of his protagonist. Is his conviction about the ‘‘specialness’’ of his fate the flaw of an egotist? Or, is he a tragic figure who invents a grand fate due to his passion for a life which his circumstances cannot avail him?
Success and Failure
John Marcher believes he fails on two counts. On the one hand, he decides near the end of his life that he has failed to approach life with the correct attitude. He watched and waited and let life pass him by instead of participating directly within it. On the other hand, equally crushing to Marcher, is his having failed to apprehend the moment that his ‘‘beast’’ sprang. At the end of the story he realizes that it ‘‘sprang’’ in May’s room on that day in April when she lay near death. This means that his realization of his overall failure would have been the same; that is, to realize that he should have spent his life loving May then, as she lay on her deathbed, would still amount to the realization that he...
(The entire section is 538 words.)