The Beast in the Jungle


Henry James

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The Beast in the Jungle Summary

John Marcher is visiting an estate with a group of friends. When he separates from the group, he runs into May Bartram. Marcher had recognized May earlier in the day, certain that he’d met her in the past. He can tell that she’s a dependent in the house, maybe the owner’s relative. Marcher and May end up alone in a room, where May tells him that they met in Naples 10 years ago. In Naples, Marcher told her something significant, which he now doesn’t remember. To jog his memory, she asks him whether “it” has ever happened. Marcher is shocked: she’s the only person he ever shared his secret with. Apparently, he told May that he’s always felt destined for a rare fate.

Marcher tells her that his fate hasn’t happened yet. It won’t be an achievement, but it will be life-altering. May wonders whether his fate is to fall in love, but Marcher has been in love, and it wasn’t earth-shattering. He invites May to wait for his fate with him. She asks if he’s afraid, and he doesn’t know. She then agrees to wait with him.

In the next year, May’s great-aunt, with whom she was living, dies and leaves May enough money to buy a London home. This means that she and Marcher can spend time together. Marcher enjoys the fact that May knows his secret. He’s always considered himself selfless, as he chose not to burden anyone with the knowledge of his fate. As a result, he’s honed polite manners to blend in. Now, he’s being selfish by spending time with May. Still, he maintains boundaries; even though he could marry her to normalize their relationship, he won’t do so. His fate is his alone, a crouching “beast in the jungle” of his life, and a woman shouldn’t be involved.

At first, Marcher avoids discussing his fate with May. However, when he alludes to it, she responds eagerly, and he realizes that she might take his fate more seriously than he does. He thinks she likes him because he’s unique, and because she alone knows why. Even better, she can view him from an outsider’s perspective and evaluate how the figurative “mask” he wears in public is different from his authentic self.

They grow old, and Marcher’s fate becomes May’s focus. But it turns out that she’s also keeping secrets, even from Marcher, who doesn’t notice. In society, the two of them speak openly about Marcher’s fate, since everyone is too stupid to know what they’re discussing. May often remarks that luckily, their relationship seems normal, as men like to spend time with “dull” women. Marcher agrees, but he wonders how May can appear normal to others, and he worries that he’s selfish to involve her in his life. She asks if he’s afraid of his fate now, and he says no. May thinks that if he is afraid, he’s grown used to fear. Marcher wonders if this makes him brave, and May agrees that it might. Suddenly, Marcher realizes that May knows what his fate is and that she’s afraid to tell him. She says that he’ll never find out.

The two move on from their conversation, and Marcher tries to be selfless with May by taking more of an interest in her life. One day, he again asks her what it is that makes her look normal, since she makes him look normal. She admits that society gossips about her, but her only concern is helping Marcher to blend in. Marcher begins to worry that he’ll lose May someday—in fact, maybe losing her is his fate. Not long after, May tells Marcher that she has a blood disorder. He worries that she’ll die before seeing his fate happen. He again wonders if watching May die will be his fate, even though this fate would be anticlimactic—in fact, he’d consider it a failure. He even worries that his fate isn’t coming at all. This horrifies him; he’d rather have an awful fate than fail entirely.

One day, Marcher goes to visit May and notes that she looks distant. He confronts her at last: she knows what his fate is. He’s afraid of not knowing and afraid that she’s abandoning him. She admits that she has an idea about what his fate is and that this fate would be the worst one she can imagine, but she hasn’t abandoned him. In fact, she reassures him that he won’t suffer. He’s relieved, but when she remains tense, he wonders if he’s right that no fate is coming at all. She assures him that his fate is coming. She walks toward him and waits expectantly, then backs away. She asks if he understands his fate now, but he doesn’t. Claiming to feel ill, she sends him away. He asks her what happened, and she says he should be asking what was going to happen.

May won’t let Marcher visit her the next day. Eventually, she tells him that his fate has already happened, and he’ll never know what it was. May begs him not to try to figure it out, and he wonders if she’s dying because of his fate.

May dies soon after. Marcher is frustrated that no one knows how important she was to him, since any explanation he could give about their relationship would mean revealing the beast. He toys with the idea of sharing his secret publicly, as his fate has passed, but he decides against it because he doesn’t know what his fate was. May told him not to guess, but he decides to find out anyway. Marcher travels for a year, but he finds the world dull, since no one knows what he’s been through and lost. He visits May’s grave when he returns, reassured by the fact that May understood him. He no longer wonders what his fate was, and he visits May’s grave often, as being there makes him feel alive.

A year passes, and one day, Marcher encounters a mourner at the cemetery, grieving at another grave. The two men come face-to-face, and Marcher recognizes that the man is intentionally demonstrating his profound sorrow to Marcher. Maybe he wants sympathy or maybe he wants to prove that his grief is greater than Marcher’s. Marcher wonders whom the man mourns so deeply, and he realizes that he’s jealous—Marcher never felt that way about anyone. Suddenly, Marcher realizes that waiting for his fate was his fate. As a result, he was doomed to never experience anything at all, especially love. May had offered him a way out the day he confronted her, but he didn’t understand her then. Now, he knows that the way to avoid his fate would have been to love May the way that she clearly loved him. The “beast” emerged when she walked up to him, expecting him to guess his fate, and he ignored her hints.

Marcher tries to feel the full weight of his pain now, but he can’t do so, which makes him realize how much damage he’s done to himself by repressing his emotions. He imagines the beast jumping out at him, and he falls down onto the tomb.