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 utterly bereft. A monstrous egotism has wasted not only his own life but also that of the woman who loved him and to whose love he was unable...
(The entire section is 656 words.)
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