Regretting His Romanticism: A Review of The Beast in the Jungle (1903) by Henry James

WP_20170926_15_06_45_Pro    John Marcher, the central character in this short story, is secretly convinced that he has at least one important characteristic of a Romantic hero. He believes he is destined to experience something, perhaps good perhaps not, but in any case extraordinary. But the true hero here is not John, but May Bartram, the woman to whom he confides his sense of specialness. May walks with John through life until he learns, too late, that he is in fact an ordinary man with as much of a need to love and be loved as any ordinary man. May Bartram teaches him that lesson by her death, which leaves him with a void he has no hope of filling. There is no longer any jungle for the prowling beast inside John to roam in.

The archetype of the 19th-century Romantic culture that James inherited is the artist/revolutionary. A solitary man, the artist is at odds with the mass of people whom he sees as lacking the vision to see the truths that confront them daily, and his art seeks to supply them with that vision. But so special is that healing vocation that to pursue it may well require the artist to sacrifice the life of the ordinary person. John Marcher stands for the artist in Henry James, the side of him that felt compelled to make such a sacrifice.

John thinks that a treat such as regularly taking May to the opera house is a sufficient return for her determination to stand by him. Though John is not an artist like Henry James, he is afflicted with the Romantic sense of being above the commonplace. He is an egotistical loner who mistakes visiting and gift-giving for love.

This is not the first story in which James sets an icy male in opposition to an appealingly self-giving female. Twenty-five years earlier he had done the same in Daisy Miller. There was a John Marcher in Henry James: a self who could be unfeeling for the sake of continuing his writing. But James was honest enough with himself to regret the necessity of that sacrifice.

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