How is the uncanny and narcissism shown in Henry James's The Beast in the Jungle?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Henry James is the well known author of The Beast in the Jungle whose main character prepares himself for an event so life-changing that it can, at this stage, only be imagined. This is a personality trait of any narcissist as he imagines what may befall him without any awareness of any similar event in anyone else's life. When Marcher, the protagonist, meets May some years after their first meeting, he "would have liked to invent something" and wished for "some passage of a romantic or critical kind" which would cement their understanding. It is not, however, necessary as she has an awareness of his "secret" which takes him by surprise and her uncanny appreciation for the event that so pervades his existence makes him feel more at ease in her presence. This further cements his narcissistic tendencies as he relates to May over something that is personal to him and something he has shared with her in the past. 

Marcher is not sure what May knows and his narcissism is fed as she gracefully indulges him and reminds him of "something possibly prodigious and terrible" which he had felt destined for. The fact that she ponders whether it is simply the same "sense of danger" that so many people feel and the fear of "falling in love" is dismissed by Marcher because anything he has felt has not been "overwhelming" and so does not meet the criteria for this occurrence. The fact that his experience of love has been somewhat less than his expectations is further evidence of his narcissism. He is so self-absorbed as to believe he has been set apart and James uses characterization to reinforce Marcher's internalized mind-set. Marcher appears to be shy and self-effacing and believes his actions are often unselfish when, in fact, the opposite is true.  

Marcher is so conflicted that he cannot rationalize his fears and in his attempts to be normal, he sets himself apart from others, thinking that it is the universe that causes the disconnect whereas he creates his own fear and obsessions and makes them into something tangible without them ever being so. In discussing the uncanny, the reader is constantly at odds as to whether Marcher's experiences are real or imaginary. The fact that Marcher does not understand where his feelings originate links his narcissism to the uncanny as he makes himself believe that there is some undeveloped part of his unconscious mind that will lead to this event. He feels that he has never been "settled" and ponders those people who think that they have problems whereas if they only knew about his problems, they would realize that their own difficulties are insignificant.

In the meantime, Marcher tries to "pass for a man like another" but ironically he is preparing himself for the "crouching beast in the jungle" and May is "watching" with him so the uncanny will transform this anticipated occurrence into something less mysterious but no less life-altering. However, when May is dying, Marcher can barely console himself if this is to be the event he has so anticipated. It is nothing more than "common doom" when he really thought that it would be "rare and distinguished." 

James reveals how uncanny it is that the real revelation for Marcher comes at May's grave when he is faced with the "knowledge" that he has never taken risks, never known passion and now it is too late and the pain he feels is that pain which May always hoped he would never feel. It is the ultimate combination of narcissism and the uncanny as Marcher "achieved his fate."

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The sections of the answer provided above which meet Freud's version of the uncanny are explained below. 

1. Marcher’s "secret" is treated as if it is more than a feeling and is something that defines him. It has become Marcher’s reality and has taken on its own personality. May understands him shares his very real (for him) but unmentionable torment:

…she has an awareness of his "secret" which takes him by surprise and her uncanny appreciation for the event that so pervades his existence makes him feel more at ease in her presence.

2. Psychoanalytically, Freud associates the concepts of love and death with the uncanny and makes associations with the physical world. Marcher almost looks forward to whatever catastrophic event he anticipates and he associates it with the concepts of either love- by which he is underwhelmed- or death- which he connects to his "waiting." May questions his belief that he feels anything differently than the next person:

…the same "sense of danger" that so many people feel and the fear of "falling in love…"

3.  Marcher relishes the uncanny because the very thing which scares him is the very thing which he believes separates him from others. His disappointment therefore is to be expected when he thinks that something as ordinary as death (supporting Freud’s theory) is to be that thing which has prevented him from having any real experience or even life:

…Marcher can barely console himself if this is to be the event he has so anticipated. It is nothing more than "common doom" when he really thought that it would be "rare and distinguished." 

4. Marcher's realization that he transformed his dread into something almost physical because it becomes part of his every day existence is, as explained, a Freudian concept and Freud would perhaps use the widely recognized phenomena of the “sandman” if he were to explain Marcher’s obsession.    

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