1 Oct 2018
Upon reading Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle,” I was struck by the spare use of vivid imagery. The majority of the story is narrated from so deep in the mind of John Marcher that very little of the outside world is made apparent to the reader. This lack of vivid imagery serves to distance the reader from England, the physical place in which the story would seem to be set. Often distancing techniques are used by modern and postmodern writers to draw the reader out the immediacy of the fiction (or the dream of the fiction as I have sometimes heard it described) so that the reader is allowed room to ponder the greater significance of the topic being discussed by the fictional narrative (often a divisive political topic.) But Henry James’ story “The Beast in the Jungle” (while it does anticipate the future uses of the literary distancing techniques of modernism and postmodernism) is written (to my understanding) without any political underpinnings.
Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” is thematically concerned with the problem of consciousness and how it distances John Marcher from his experiences of the real world as filtered through his senses. But the story also contends with the problems of two people connecting with each other when they are so deeply distanced by the filter of their senses and the void of their individual consciousnesses. The story also discusses John Marcher’s difficulty explaining his authentic thoughts as they are being filtered by the senses, mind, and emotions of first himself and then May Bertram. Furthermore, James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” tries to merge John Marcher’s consciousness with that of May Bertram in an attempt to reconnect John to the reality of the world through May’s eyes.
While Teresa Prudente’s article, “A-linear Time and Stream of Consciousness” discusses the writings of Virginia Woolf and not those of Henry James, it does discuss literary depictions of consciousness and how characters relate to their own conscious minds. In the article, Prudente says, “[The subject’s] balanced relation with the external world seems to reside in the character’s ability to plunge into experience and to absorb the stimuli while also maintaining that distance which allows the subject to hold a proportioned point of view” (Prudente 264.) John Marcher, however, has the opposite problem as he is plunged into the experiences and stimuli of his conscious mind to the near exclusion to the world outside of his mind. Therefore, John Marcher does not have “a balanced relation with the external world” (Prudente 264) as Virginia Woolf’s characters do. The story of “The Beast in the Jungle” is John Marcher’s attempt to regain a balanced relationship to the world through his friendship with May Bertram.
Prudente goes on to say, “Similar to Lily’s stepping back from her canvas in To the Lighthouse, this act of distancing helps the subject to place experience in perspective and gain rational control on the chaos of perception” (Prudente 264.) John Marcher attempts to take this step back from the grey of featureless wash of his mind through his conversations with May Bartram but he is held back from finding balance between his conscious mind and the reality of the world Because May Bertram’s experience of reality is also flawed even though she is shown to have a more balanced relationship with the real world than John.
May also experiences the world from the alienating perspective of her own consciousness. She picks up the signals of reality through her senses then the sensations are synthesized in her brain to create her own meanings and understandings of the real world. But before she can relay this information to John, May’s personal understanding of reality must be transcribed into language, so by the time that the more balanced understanding of the real world is related back to John, he is unable to use this new information in any useful way. Therefore, John Marcher’s relationship to May Bertram only serves to further frustrate John’s attempts at balancing his experience of the real world with his experience of his conscious mind. John is only able to regain a balanced relationship between his conscious mind and the reality of the outside world long after May’s death when the words on her tombstone become eyes and allow John the ability to see outside of his own mind (James 93.)
Prudente, Teresa. “A-Linear Time and Stream of Consciousness.” Critical Insights: Mrs. Dalloway, Sept. 2011, pp. 261–290. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=lfh&AN=69855653&site=eds-live&custid=magn1307.