Self-absorption and the Failure to Love
John Marcher has not lacked anything materially in life. He is well-off, well educated, cultured and refined. But that is only the outer man. Inside, Marcher seems to suffer from feelings of inadequacy. He no doubt has excellent manners that allow him to get along well in the upper middle class circles in which he moves. But he lacks passion, the ability to live life fully. His life is routine, rather dull, offering him no surprises. He is more of a spectator of life, including his own. Because of his feelings of loneliness, of being “different” from others, he has invented in his imagination a dramatic destiny for himself, that he was being “kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible,” that would at some point manifest itself in his life. Because he feels small and isolated, he invents himself, at least to himself if no one else, as a kind of heroic figure, facing with courage this unknown but momentous experience that is to come. He therefore detaches himself from the reality of his own life by believing, in effect, in a fantasy life of his own. This makes him almost entirely passive. He does not shape his own life through his own drive, imagination, and ambition. Instead, he sits back and waits for it to happen to him. This has terrible consequences for the most important personal relationship in his life, with May Bartram. His consciousness of what he calls the approaching “beast in the jungle” prevents him from responding fully, in the moment, to May’s love for him, which he barely seems to notice. He lives entirely in the shadow of an imagined future. Unlike most people, he does not act in the present to secure the future he envisions for himself; rather, he sees his future in terms of a radical discontinuity with his past and present; something is going to come along and irrevocably alter his life, make it something meaningful that up to now it has not been. Not surprisingly, when that big event does not come, and he finally realizes it will not (except in a way he does not at first understand), he knows that his life is a failure; he is nothing at all. It is as if he is barely alive; he has wasted his life. It would be better, he thinks, to have had something dreadful happen to him, like going bankrupt or being a murderer and getting hanged, than to be nothing. When he also realizes the depth of his failure in his relationship with May, who loved and understood him like no other, reality finally sinks in and it is more than he can bear.
The Transfiguring Power of Love
If “The Beast in the Jungle” is a story of a missed opportunity on the part of Marcher, it is also a story of the power of love. It is May Bartram who is able to love in a way that Marcher is not. Whereas he lives in the future and does not know how to experience a full emotional life in the present, she offers him a selfless kind of love that eases the burden he carries. From the beginning, for reasons known only to herself, she accepts Marcher as he is, without judgment or criticism or any attempt to change him or mould him into the kind of man she might think he ought to be. Such is her gift of empathy that she understands him more deeply than he understands himself. She speaks of his secret as “the real truth” about him, and she possesses “a wonderful way of making it seem, as such, the secret of her own life.” Although she does not live to see his love returned in a way that she deserves, and he never offers her the security and comfort of marriage, she has the satisfaction of knowing that at least she was able to devote herself fully to another person, that she did not live her life entirely wrapped up in herself. Marcher may have lived in vain, but May Bartram did not, tragic though her experience may have been. In her final illness, she reveals the transfiguring power of love, as is shown by the description of her as “pale, ill, wasted, but all beautiful.” Love transcends the limitations of the mortal body, a transcendence denied to the self-centered Marcher but attained by his devoted friend.