On Henry James’ "The Beast in the Jungle"

I first read this longish short story over thirty years ago, and I was just as floored then by the ending as I was last night when I read it again for perhaps the twentieth time. The complexity of the author’s discourse, a labyrinth of syntactic juggling and back-tracking, embedded clauses, and hyperbolic double-talk, is daunting because he manages to talk about love and falling into it for the entire story without ever saying anything directly. The story revolves around the dynamics of a couple, May Bertram and John Marcher, who definitely are a couple, but they never marry, have children, or formalize in any serious way their informal relationship. Everyone who knows them understands that they are a couple. May considers them to be a couple, but Marcher just can’t seem to formalize the relationship even though he participates fully in the relationship as if they were married, but they aren’t married, and are not having sex, which their particular society would frown upon. On the other hand, Marcher is obsessed with some imaginary “great thing” to which he will be exposed and which will change his life significantly. He has shared this delusion/idea/tragedy with May, and she agrees to “watch” with him for the horrendous event. He dismisses the question of love almost outright, but he enlists the help of May to help him watch for this “great thing” he is to experience. They discuss the nature of this “great thing” but one gets the sensation that Marcher is only ever more clueless about what this great thing might be, and one also understands, as does Marcher at some point, that May Bertram knows exactly what the “great thing” will be. She knows, he doesn’t, awkward moment. Over the decades through which the relationship endures they grow to love each other to the exclusion of all others, but they each maintain a dwelling, so they are never in an economic situation which might force them into living together–getting married, that is. Marcher is an independent fool who cannot get past his own ego, cannot understand that he is a man like all others, cannot understand that he is much more common than he pretends to be. He believes himself to be “above average” or “special” but the entire story only proves that he is of the most common type of man who lives under the delusion that he is in some significant way special. May, on the other hand, is paralyzed by the fear that if she expresses her love for Marcher that he will disappear and never come back. For her, his companionship is enough, going to the opera, the theater, out to dinner, eating dinner at her home. Their intimacy is mental and occurs through their conversations about Marcher’s “great thing.” Since their intimacy is not centered on sex, their verbal intimacy, based solely on their conversations, their shared meals, their public companionship, serves to bring them together in a way that is much more emotionally based than physical. Since they go together so well, their natural interactions are taken for granted by Marcher and treasured by May. Only when she gets sick and things happen, does Marcher realize what their relationship has been about all along, and he has been an all-too-willing participant. Whether the story is a bitter ironic comedy or a stone-cold tragedy is for each reader to decide. In the end, the reader is the only witness to Marcher’s comic/tragic suffering. Ultimately, one must decide to live in each day, never take anyone or anything for granted, and take great joy in relationships no matter what form they might take.