What is the beast in the jungle that is referred to in Henry James's novella The Beast in the Jungle?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

John Marcher, the protagonist of the story, convinces himself that an ambiguous future event will determine the course of his existence. He believes that some catastrophe lies in wait for him like a "beast in the jungle." This "crouching beast" becomes the central topic of the short novel, and it determines the conversations between Marcher and Bertram May, a woman who waits patiently for Marcher to acknowledge their love. The narrator follows John Marcher’s perpetual anxiety as he awaits the life-changing event.

In his anticipation of the "beast," Marcher ignores his actual experiences, most importantly his relationship with May. The constant sense of foreboding makes him commitment-phobic. He allows the best years of his life to pass by in anticipation of the metaphorical "beast."

Eventually, he realizes that the renunciation of life's possibilities has been the catastrophe. Expecting the worst has kept him from living.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The beast in Henry James's short novella, "The Beast in the Jungle," refers to Marcher's lifelong belief that he was destined to experience some traumatic, terrible event in his life that would overwhelm him and shake his very foundations. We see the beast clearly defined in Chapter II, when the narrator explains:

Something or other lay in wait for him, amid the twists and the turns of the months and the years, like a crouching Beast in the Jungle. (Ch. II)

The irony is that as he goes through his life waiting for this strange and terrible thing to happen to him, he lets all of life's opportunities pass him by. In fact, he meets a lovely woman named May Bartram who is even willing to become his "special friend" who stands by his side waiting with him for this fantastic event to happen. Furthermore, the narrator explains that Marcher decided never to marry because a man simply can't in good conscience take a "lady on a tiger-hunt" (Ch. II). However, his marriage to May could have indeed turned into the fantastic event that overwhelmed him by changing his life. When May is taken ill, she even begins to express doubt in his convictions and claims that the fantastic event he was waiting for has actually happened and that it was "what was to," meaning what was to have happened, what has already happened (Ch. IV).

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial