The Beast in the Jungle

tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links

The Beast in the Jungle (1903) is widely regarded as the greatest of James’s short stories – if not one of the greatest stories of all time. It is certainly one of his most frequently reprinted and anthologised works. And as if to mark the begining of modernism in the twentieth century, it is a story in which almost nothing happens. In fact that is one of the key features of the story.

It is worth noting that although Henry James made a number of technical innovations to both the story and the novel as literary genres, he gave his shorter works the collective name of tales. These works are rarely as short, condensed, and understated as we now think of narratives categorised as short stories: they are often quite long; many deal in a number of inter-related themes; and some become novellas and even short novels.

The Beast in the Jungle

The Beast in the Jungle – critical commentary

This story has been the subject of enormous amounts of critical commentary – partly because it is such a powerful narrative, and partly because its eventless and abstract subject lends itself to a number of possible interpretations. These are variations of three basic types – existential, biographical, and psychological.


It’s quite possible to see the story as an expression of existential angst some years before such philosophic notions became popular. After all, Kafka would be writing about lonely figures trapped inside vague fears and presentiments only a few years after James wrote The Beast in the Jungle.

Marcher is after all a civil servant, and although we have no account of his working life, it is quite clear that it is regimented and unexciting. He goes to the opera with May, and they even play piano transcriptions together, but his life is dominated by his idée fixe. He lives in London and his situation is that of an isolated city-dweller.

He feels a presentiment, and is not even sure if what awaits him in life will be of a positive or negative nature. That is part of the existential threat – not knowing what it will be and when it will come. He fears that it will be ‘tremendous’, but does not know in what way. That is its existential nature: it is a sort of metaphysical threat – something abstract and intagible, but felt as very real.


Even the most cursory acquaintance with James’s own life cannot but suggest that he was reflecting on his own predicament in many of his late stories, and in particular The Beast in the Jungle. Throughout his life he had enjoyed relationships with a number of women – but only as friends. And he also worried terribly about the idea that he ought to be married. It was the normal, acceptable thing to do, but he could not face the prospect of commitment.

But many of his stories reflect a deep-seated fear of women as potential or actual sources of problems. And of course many post-Freudian commentators have observed the ssubmerged homo-erotic elements in his work.

Marcher rationalises his fear of marriage by claiming that it would be unfair to marry someone when he does not know what the outcome of his ‘destiny’ will be. He cannot marry May because it would be unfair to subject her to such uncertainty. That is his rationale – but in fact he continues to harrass her with discussions of his fear right up to the point of her death.


Marcher is a man imprisoned in a solipsistic world. He has conceived this notion that something sets him aside from his fellow creatures. He believes he is destined for a special destiny. It might not be positive, it might even be tragic – but it will be something outstanding or momentous – which will confirm his superiority over other lesser beings.

He has no evidence to support the validity of this supposition. He merely feels it and asserts it. and his behaviour is guided entirely with reference to the belief.

May Bartram’s own personal tragedy is that she devotes her life to supporting him in this unfounded notion. We are led to believe from the inferences in the text that she hopes he will one day realise that she is the thing that is to happen to him. But of course he doesn’t realise this – because he is so wrapped up in himself.

Marcher’s sudden awareness of his wasted life at the end of the story is certainly a dramatic resolution – but in fact the story reaches its heart-stopping structural climax three-quarters way through when May comes as close as she ever does to offering herself directly to Marcher. She is ill; she can hardly get out of her chair; and Marcher is quizzing her relentlessly about the ‘thing’ that is to happen to him – yet she gets up and presents herself to him:

“I’m with you – don’t you see – still”. And as if to make it more vivid to him she rose from her chair – a movement she seldom made in these days – and showed herself, all draped and all soft, in her fairness and slimness. “I haven’t forsaken you.”

This is a very heart-rending, and a beautifully understated pivotal moment in the development of this apparently eventless story. Marcher of course fails to recognise or respond to what her words and movement signify. He is so blinded by his own egotism that May’s gesture is completely ignored. Marcher merely worries that she’s going to die before he finds the answer, and he even asks her (whilst she actually is dying), if he is going to suffer.

The Beast in the Jungle – study resources

The Beast in the Jungle The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

The Beast in the Jungle The Complete Works of Henry James – Kindle edition – Amazon US

The Beast in the Jungle Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon UK

The Beast in the Jungle Complete Stories 1898—1910 – Library of America – Amazon US

The Beast in the Jungle The Beast in the Jungle – Penguin Modern Classics – Amazon UK

The Beast in the Jungle The Beast in the Jungle – Penguin Modern Classics – Amazon US

The Beast in the Jungle The Beast in the Jungle – Dover Thrift edition

The Beast in the Jungle The Beast in the Jungle – eBook formats at Project Gutenberg

The Beast in the Jungle The Beast in the Jungle – read the story on line

Red button The Cambridge Companion to Henry James – Amazon UK

Red button Henry James at Wikipedia – biographical notes, links

Red button Henry James at Mantex – tutorials, biography, study resources

The Beast in the Jungle – plot summary

John Marcher is a minor civil servant with a library and a garden in the country. Visiting a stately home he encounters May Bartram who he met ten years previously in Italy. She reveals that he confided to her his abiding notion that something lay ahead for him in life which would have far-reaching consequences. He confesses that the fear still haunts him and invites her to join him in waiting and watching to see what it will be.

She inherits enough to buy a house in London, and they continue to meet regularly, comparing their thoughts and observations on the issue which continues to preoccupy him. As the years go by they discuss the problem ad nauseam. He realises that she is the only other person who knows about his fear, he is very dependent on her, and wonders what he would do if anything should happen to her.

He also begins to wonder if their relationship is causing her to be ‘talked about’, but she reassures him that she is doing as she wishes. He suspects that she secretly knows what the thing or the event will be, but isn’t telling him because it might be so horrible.

They grow old together, and she finally becomes ill. He is alarmed that she might die before revealing to him what it will be, and he makes a final plea for reassurance or relief. She tells him that the ‘thing’ has already happened and that he is not conscious of it.

She dies shortly afterwards and he is left wondering what it could be. He travels abroad, but finds no respite. Finally, whilst visiting her grave one day, he sees a man similar to himself who is obviously grieving a lost loved one in a passionate and deep manner. Marcher realises that he has lived his entire life without any deep feelings or passion of any kind. Moreover he realises that the thing for which he has been waiting was May Bartram and her offer of herself to him, and that he has missed his chance because of his egoism and selfishness.

Principal characters
John Marcher a minor civil servant
May Bartram a young English woman
Weatherhead an ‘almost famous’ house where they meet

Henry James's study

Henry James’s study

Further reading


Red button Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James at Work, University of Michigan Press, 2007.

Red button F.W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Red button Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life, HarperCollins, 1985.

Red button Philip Horne (ed), Henry James: A Life in Letters, Viking/Allen Lane, 1999.

Red button Henry James, The Letters of Henry James, Adamant Media Corporation, 2001.

Red button Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

Red button F.O. Matthieson (ed), The Notebooks of Henry James, Oxford University Press, 1988.

Critical commentary

Red button Elizabeth Allen, A Woman’s Place in the Novels of Henry James London: Macmillan Press, 1983.

Red button Ian F.A. Bell, Henry James and the Past, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.

Red button Millicent Bell, Meaning in Henry James, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1993.

Red button Harold Bloom (ed), Modern Critical Views: Henry James, Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.

Red button Kirstin Boudreau, Henry James’s Narrative Technique, Macmillan, 2010.

Red button J. Donald Crowley and Richard A. Hocks (eds), The Wings of the Dove, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1978.

Red button Victoria Coulson, Henry James, Women and Realism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Daniel Mark Fogel, A Companion to Henry James Studies, Greenwood Press, 1993.

Red button Virginia C. Fowler, Henry James’s American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas, Madison (Wis): University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

Red button Jonathan Freedman, The Cambridge Companion to Henry James, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth Century American Novel, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976

Red button Roger Gard (ed), Henry James: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1968.

Red button Tessa Hadley, Henry James and the Imagination of Pleasure, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Red button Barbara Hardy, Henry James: The Later Writing (Writers & Their Work), Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Red button Richard A. Hocks, Henry James: A study of the short fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Red button Donatella Izzo, Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Red button Colin Meissner, Henry James and the Language of Experience, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Red button John Pearson (ed), The Prefaces of Henry James, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Red button Richard Poirer, The Comic Sense of Henry James, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Red button Hugh Stevens, Henry James and Sexuality, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Red button Merle A. Williams, Henry James and the Philosophical Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Red button Judith Woolf, Henry James: The Major Novels, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Red button Ruth Yeazell (ed), Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays, Longmans, 1994.

Other works by Henry James

Henry James Washington SquareWashington Square (1880) is a superb early short novel, It’s the tale of a young girl whose future happiness is being controlled by her strict authoritarian (but rather witty) father. She is rather reserved, but has a handsome young suitor. However, her father disapproves of him, seeing him as an opportunist and a fortune hunter. There is a battle of wills – all conducted within the confines of their elegant New York town house. Who wins out in the end? You will probably be surprised by the outcome. This is a masterpiece of social commentary, offering a sensitive picture of a young woman’s life.
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James Washington Square Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James The Aspern PapersThe Aspern Papers (1888) is a psychological drama set in Venice which centres on the tussle for control of a great writer’s correspondence. An elderly lady, ex-lover of the writer, seeks a husband for her daughter. But the potential purchaser of the papers is a dedicated bachelor. Money is also at stake – but of course not discussed overtly. There is a refined battle of wills between them. Who will win in the end? As usual, James keeps the reader guessing. The novella is a masterpiece of subtle narration, with an ironic twist in its outcome. This collection of stories also includes three of his accomplished long short stories – The Private Life, The Middle Years, and The Death of the Lion.
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Aspern Papers Buy the book from Amazon US


Henry James The Spoils of PoyntonThe Spoils of Poynton (1896) is a short novel which centres on the contents of a country house, and the question of who is the most desirable person to inherit it via marriage. The owner Mrs Gereth is being forced to leave her home to make way for her son and his greedy and uncultured fiancee. Mrs Gereth develops a subtle plan to take as many of the house’s priceless furnishings with her as possible. But things do not go quite according to plan. There are some very witty social ironies, and a contest of wills which matches nouveau-riche greed against high principles. There’s also a spectacular finale in which nobody wins out.
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon UK
Henry James The Spoils of Poynton Buy the book from Amazon US

Henry James – web links

Henry James  web links Henry James at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides, tutorials on the Complete Tales, book reviews. bibliographies, and web links.

Henry James web links The Complete Works
Sixty books in one 13.5 MB Kindle eBook download for £1.92 at The complete novels, stories, travel writing, and prefaces. Also includes his autobiographies, plays, and literary criticism – with illustrations.

Henry James web links The Ladder – a Henry James website
A collection of eTexts of the tales, novels, plays, and prefaces – with links to available free eTexts at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

Red button A Hyper-Concordance to the Works
Japanese-based online research tool that locates the use of any word or phrase in context. Find that illusive quotable phrase.

Henry James web links The Henry James Resource Center
A web site with biography, bibliographies, adaptations, archival resources, suggested reading, and recent scholarship.

Henry James web links Online Books Page
A collection of online texts, including novels, stories, travel writing, literary criticism, and letters.

Henry James web links Henry James at Project Gutenberg
A major collection of eTexts, available in a variety of eBook formats.

Henry James web links The Complete Letters
Archive of the complete correspondence (1855-1878) work in progress – published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Henry James web links The Scholar’s Guide to Web Sites
An old-fashioned but major jumpstation – a website of websites and resouces.

Henry James web links Henry James – The Complete Tales
Tutorials on the complete collection of over one hundred tales, novellas, and short stories.

© Roy Johnson 2012

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