The central metaphor of the story is that of the hunt. Marcher likens himself to a man who is being hunted by a wild beast in a jungle. At some point the beast will spring on its prey, and Marcher’s life will have changed forever. He does not know whether he will kill the beast or whether the beast will kill him. As a creature might be in the jungle, this beast is hidden; Marcher will not be able to determine what it is until the moment it strikes. It is not something he can reason with, understand intellectually or prepare for. It is this sense that he is being hunted down by his own unknown destiny that gives Marcher his feeling of being haunted, although there is nothing ghostly about the “beast” he anticipates; it is going to be, he is convinced, a life-changing event.
Sphinx and Sibyl
May is referred to metaphorically as a sphinx. This description, which occurs at the beginning of chapter IV, comes only when May is ill. It is as if in her physical weakness she acquires greater wisdom and power but in a way that Marcher finds frustrating. In mythology, the sphinx is a lion with a human head, as found in ancient Egyptian sculptures. In ancient Greece, the Sphinx was the guardian of the entrance to the city of Thebes. Travelers had to answer a riddle posed to them by the Sphinx in order to enter the city. In this way, May seems at times almost to be talking in riddles, when Marcher tries to elicit from her any knowledge she may have of the “beast.” She has taken it upon herself to be the guardian of this piece of knowledge, without which Marcher cannot find any rest. Later in that same section, she divulges at least some of what she knows, and she does it with authority, “with the perfect straightness of a sibyl.” Sibyl was the name given in ancient Greece and other ancient cultures to a prophetess, a wise woman whose pronouncements were greatly valued. May has in Marcher’s eyes attained this status because he believes she is in possession of knowledge that is vital for his welfare. The Seasons
The author makes many references to the seasons in the story, thus grounding it both in the eternal cycles of nature (endless repetition) and the long passage of time. To emphasize this theme, the two characters, Marcher and May, are named after months, and they first meet at a house called Weatherend. The main scenes all take place either in spring or autumn, in-between seasons that suggest promise (spring) and loss (fall), two qualities that seem to epitomize the relationship between May and Marcher. The reader is never shown Marcher and May in high summer, nor in winter. They meet at Weatherend in October; the scene in which May is ill and Marcher fails to understand the hints she gives him about the “beast” (section IV) takes place in late April; May’s birthday in section II falls in the autumn, “at a season of thick fog and general outward gloom”; the fog suggests the veil over Marcher’s eyes, his lack of knowledge concerning his fate. He can only guess at the truth; he cannot see it. The final scene, in the cemetery, takes place in the autumn “when the leaves were thick in the alleys.”