Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693
At a party in one of the stately homes of England, John Marcher meets May Bartram, and they realize that they had met years before in Italy. She recalls a strange confession he made on that occasion—that he had always felt the deepest thing within him was a sense of...
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At a party in one of the stately homes of England, John Marcher meets May Bartram, and they realize that they had met years before in Italy. She recalls a strange confession he made on that occasion—that he had always felt the deepest thing within him was a sense of being reserved for a unique fate, “something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible,” that eventually would happen to him and perhaps overwhelm him. Whatever the fate is, it is not anything he is to do or accomplish; his role is to wait, and he asks if she will wait and watch with him. Like most people in Henry James’s fiction, they do not have to work for a living; Marcher seems to be well-off, and Miss Bartram, though less well-to-do, can get by in a genteel fashion on a modest income. Whatever Marcher’s fate is to be, it has not happened yet, and in response to her query, he says that it has not been to fall in love.
Thus they begin a long, intimate but uncommitted relationship, from which she gets nothing but the dubious pleasure of his company. He can give her nothing more because he must reserve himself wholly for the revelation of his destiny. At first, Marcher is as much hopeful as apprehensive; he believes that when it comes, his special fate will cause him to have “felt and vibrated . . . more than any one else.” As the years go by and nothing happens, however, his feeling changes to dread, and he abandons the dream and waits for “the hidden beast to spring.” He now sees this moment as the deadly leap of something sinister that “lay in wait for him, amid the twists and turns of the months and the years, like a crouching beast in the jungle.” He does not know whether he will slay it or it will slay him; the crucial thing is the ultimate and inevitable spring. He has some qualms of conscience about having Miss Bartram accompany him on a “tiger-hunt,” even if it is a psychological one, but he continues to exploit her, unable to give her anything in return.
As that moment continues to recede, they drift into the beginning of old age. (As the story opens, he is thirty-five and she is thirty.) Gradually, he becomes aware that she knows something about his fate that he does not. Her concern is to help him “to pass for a man like another,” but he fails to understand her. While they continue to grope as if in a dark valley, he begins to feel that he has been cheated. However, May assures him that his fate is indeed special, that it is on the verge of happening, and that it is the worst thing possible. Still, she cannot tell him; he must find it out for himself. He will not consciously suffer, but his destiny is more monstrous than anything they could imagine. However, she assures him that the door is still open, that he can still escape. She is too ill to tell him how, however, and when he still fails to understand, she says that the beast has now sprung, the moment has passed. Perhaps he could have saved her, but he is too obsessed with himself to understand how, and she dies. So tenuous was their intimacy that Marcher is excluded from her funeral.
For a year, he travels around the world. On his return, he pays a visit to her tomb. At a nearby grave, he sees a man suffering from acute bereavement. From the other man’s intense grief, he gets the revelation of his own fate. His life has been a void, untouched by passion; he is “the man to whom nothing on earth was to have happened.” Too late, he realizes that May Bartram had loved him, that his escape would have been to love her, that had he done so, he might have saved her, that the moment when he failed to understand this was the moment when the beast sprang. Suddenly overwhelmed by despair, he flings himself on her tomb.