The Beast of James


Timothy P. Hart
Professor Lukacher
ENGL 403
March 7, 1989

The Beast of James

"In the case of Henry James there should not be much dispute about the exactness and completeness of the representation; no man ever strove more studiously or on the whole more successfully to reproduce the shape and color and movement of his æsthetic experience." These are the remarks of Stuart P. Sherman from his article entitled "The Aesthetic Idealism of Henry James," from The Nation, p. 397, April 5, 1917. Now, some seventy-two years later critical readers are still coming to terms with James\' aesthetic vision. As we have discussed in class, James aestheticizes everything. Sexual intercourse, carnal knowledge, painful self-discovery, human mortality, etc., are often figuratively and metaphorically veiled so as not to disturb or repulse the reader. Taking a closer look at this, one might say that James did this so that he himself would not be repulsed. Perhaps James wasn\'t thinking so much of the reader as he was thinking of himself.
In "The Beast in the Jungle" James has aesthetically hidden the reality of Marcher\'s destiny by treating it as a symbolic crouching beast waiting to spring. The reader will ask why James has done this? Wouldn\'t it be more effective to speak plainly of Marcher\'s and Bartram\'s relationship? The author could tell us exactly why John Marcher does not marry May Bartram. The narrator tells us that Marcher\'s situation "was not a condition he could invite a woman to share" and "that a man of feeling didn\'t cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger hunt" (p. 417). This is nonsense. Marcher won\'t marry May because he doesn\'t want to inconvenience her with his condition or endanger her life on a tiger hunt? First of all, he inconveniences her right up to the day of her death with his condition, and as for the metaphorical tiger hunt, what exactly does that refer to? What is it here that James will not speak of in plain language? Simply what is the meaning of this; what is the author\'s intent?
One might speculate that this story is somewhat autobiographical in that James himself never married and often carried on close personal relationships with a very select few. The various biographers of his life have brought to light a number of respectable ladies and men with whom James was personally and privately acquainted. There is also the belief that everything an author produces is autobiographical to a certain extent. And supposing "The Beast in the Jungle" is largely autobiographical, once again I ask what was James\' intention? Is the story so autobiographical that James felt it necessary to create an elaborate smoke-screen to elude the critics of its true meaning in view of his personal life? Was the aesthetic curtain drawn to protect his privacy? I believe this to be the case, yet it seems to me that "The Beast in the Jungle" might also be read as a warning to people who behave much like Marcher. Perhaps James is saying one should not be foolish with the precious time of one\'s life. I believe Krishna Vaid would agree with me; Vaid states:"The wider thematic context of \'The Beast\' is perhaps too obvious to merit more than a bare mention: it is a \'fantastic\' embodiment of the central Jamesian theme of the unlived life"(Vaid p. 224). Readings and interpretations on James\' intent vary widely.
For this brief examination I have acquired around ten different sources. There was also an exchange of ideas in our February 28th class on other critical works which I will attempt to deal with. In some ways the criticism I have found is rather uniform, but on some points it differs considerably. I shall start with the common parts of the criticism. Because "The Beast in the Jungle" is a rather short work, the majority of these critics tend to summarize the entire story instead of concentrating on one or two significant aspects. I have found they are in general agreement that May Bartram is the figurative "Beast." Allen Tate says "As May Bartram stands before [Marcher], \'all soft,\' it is marcher\'s Beast which has leaped at him from his jungle" (Tate p.