“The Beast in the Jungle” is a product of what critics call James’s third and final phase. Some consider this his richest phase; others find it flawed by excessive narrative and indirection, implausibly mannered dialogue, a fussy and cobwebby style, and a pretentious ponderousness. James Thurber, who admired James, parodied this style and technique in “The Beast in the Dingle.”
“The Beast in the Jungle” does have some shortcomings. James’s late works are an acquired taste, and though the denouement and message of the story are extremely powerful, they are delayed so long and the situation leading up to them is so farfetched that a reader unaccustomed to James may be frustrated. James was unable to place it in a magazine, and it had to wait a year to be published in a collection of his stories. Despite its length, the characters are never fully developed as three-dimensional individuals. Their lives and relationship are so anemic as to seem almost disembodied. May Bartram, as she is declining and trying to make Marcher aware of her love and his danger, does become poignant, but until the end, Marcher seems almost an abstraction, more the embodiment of an idea than a flesh and blood human being. He is wintry March; Miss Bartram is May. On the other hand, the story gradually generates considerable suspense as the reader waits to discover what the beast is and when it will spring, especially when Miss Bartram becomes aware of it and tries to warn Marcher, who continues to lack all comprehension. Even the labyrinthine style and the dialogue that seems more verbalized intuition than realistic conversation gradually take hold of the reader and appropriately create a sort of twilight world. Frustrating though its slow progress is, the story finally delivers a devastating conclusion.