Henry James’s short story, “The Beast in the Jungle,” begins during a luncheon party at a rather luxurious private house in London in October. The spacious house, called Weatherend, is large and well stocked with heirlooms and works of art. The guests include a man named John Marcher, and the narrator tells the story from Marcher’s point of view.
After luncheon the guests wander from room to room examining all the fine furniture and art. Marcher encounters a young woman named May Bartram who is staying at the house. He had noticed her sitting at the luncheon table. Although they were seated far apart, she aroused his interest, although he was not sure why. He had a feeling that he has met her before.
When they finally get close enough to speak to each other, they are alone in one of the rooms in the house. He remembers that they had met in Rome several years earlier, and he tells her that he remembers every detail of their encounter. She expresses disappointment, since she was sure he would not remember. Marcher tells her everything he remembers about the incident, and is rather proud of himself for being able to remember so much. But then she starts to speak and he realizes that he has got many of the details wrong. She explains that they had met not in Rome but in Naples, and it had been ten years before, not the eight years Marcher had thought. She had been there with her mother and brother, and he had been there not with the Pemble family but with the Boyers. She also points out that the thunderstorm that forced them to take refuge took place not while they were at the Palace of the Caesars but when they were at Pompeii. Marcher accepts that her memory is better than his, as well as her point that he really did not remember much about her at all. They both feel a little disappointed that their previous meeting, when he was twenty-five years old and she was twenty, had been so inconsequential. Marcher finds himself wishing that their encounter had been more dramatic and memorable—that he might have saved her from a capsized boat, for example, or that he had contracted a fever and she had looked after him.
They wonder together why they had not met again for so many years, since they have a number of acquaintances. Marcher is regretting that they cannot find more common ground between them, and fearing that they will part and never meet again, when May says something that supplies him with the link to her that he is seeking. May says she remembers him saying something to her that she has never forgotten as they returned on a boat from a visit to Sorrento. She asks him if he remembers what he said, but he cannot, although he remembers that day in Sorrento. She gives him a clue, saying that his words that day were something about himself. He begins to remember. Then she asks him if the thing he spoke of that day has yet happened. He replies that he remembers what she is talking about but is surprised that he had mentioned it to her. He has never told anyone else. May replies that she has never told anyone else either, and never will. She asks him if he still feels the same way about himself. He feels grateful to her for being sympathetic to him, and he asks her what exactly it was that he told her. May replies that he had told her that from when he was young he had always had a deep feeling inside him “the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you.”
Marcher acknowledges the truth of her memory and says that no, whatever event he feels will at some point happen has not yet taken place. He says it will be something that will happen to him that might destroy him completely or simply alter everything in his world. May wonders whether what he is talking about is the experience of falling in love. Marcher replies that if it had been that, he would probably have known it by now. He has been in love before, and it was not the strange experience that he believes still awaits him, the expectation of which he lives with every day. In response to her question, he says that he does not think that the expected event will be violent. He asks her to stay with him, to be his friend, and watch with him for this coming catastrophe. She says she understands and believes him, she does not regard him as crazy, and she agrees to watch with him and see what happens.
What the modern reader notices immediately about this story by William James is the leisurely pace at which it moves. James spends a great deal of time setting the scene and dwelling on every small fluctuation of thought and feeling that goes on in his protagonist, John Marcher. Almost all the action in this story is psychological rather than physical. Very little actually happens. And yet in this first section James manages to create a sense of mystery about the strange fate that Marcher believes awaits him and also creates a sense of expectation on the part of the reader. Just what is going to happen to this man? Whatever happens must surely be some great, unmistakable, momentous event that will no doubt make exciting reading? It is this premonition that Marcher has of some shattering event that will alter his life irrevocably that gives the story its title. His premonition is of the “beast in the jungle” that will one day suddenly pounce on him and
The central, indeed the only, relationship described in the story is that between Marcher and May Bartram. In this first section James gives the reader many clues as to how to understand Marcher and the relationship that he and May are about to embark on.
Marcher himself is obviously a well-to-do man who moves in the upper circles of society. His profession is not stated. He appears, at least in his own view, to have plenty of friends. But the very first paragraph of the story suggests something about him that is relevant for what happens later. He is with a group of people at another house when they are invited to lunch at the house where May is staying. Marcher thinks that because so many people are at the lunch, he himself is not very noticeable: “it was his theory, as always, that he was lost in the crowd.” This suggests a man who thinks he is not going to be noticed, a man who does not bring attention to himself (or so he thinks). And yet Marcher also feels that he stands apart from others; he does not feel quite at ease; he is “disconcerted almost equally by the presence of those who knew too much and by that of those who knew nothing.”
Marcher is also lonely. That much is revealed by the fact that he longs to make a connection with May and is relieved when one emerges—that he has confided in her his secret premonition, that haunts him every day, that something momentous will at some point happen to him. He seems embarrassed by the fact that he feels as he does and has this premonition; he fears she will laugh at him and think him foolish, and he is relieved when this does not happen. He has nursed this secret and now he has someone to share it with: “He had thought of himself so long as abominably alone, and lo he wasn’t alone a bit.” May Bartram pays him the compliment of taking him seriously and indicating that she is interested in whatever fate is to befall him.
May also provides the reader with a clue as to how the story might unfold when she reveals her own detailed memory of the time when she and Marcher first met. He thinks he remembers everything but he is wrong on many details, which suggests that he is more wrapped up in himself than he realizes. It is she who remembers more accurately; what he told her made more of an impact on her than it did on him, and as the story will later reveal, it is she who understands him better than he understands himself. But at the moment he has no inkling of this; he is just relieved that he has someone he can share his secret with.