The Beast in the Jungle: Significance defined is significance seen


The Beast in the Jungle is a novella published in 1903 by Henry James. John Marcher, the novella’s protagonist, lives a life of restless anticipation due to his conviction, ambiguous in nature but clear in its inevitability,

of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen,

occurring suddenly at some unexpected time,

amid the twists and the turns of the months and the years, like a crouching Beast in the Jungle.

What is the nature of the Beast John Marcher is watching for?

It isn’t anything to do, to achieve in the world, to be distinguished or admired for.

Rather, it is something that he will have

to meet, to face, to see suddenly break out in [his] life; possibly destroying all further consciousness, possibly annihilating [him]; possibly, on the other hand, only altering everything, striking at the root of all [his] world and leaving [him] to the consequences, however they shape themselves.

This fatalist conviction frames his fate.

Early in the novella, he re-encounters May Bartram, a woman whom he had met on a trip to Italy some ten years earlier. With a single question she reveals to him that she knows his secret and believes it,

Has it ever happened?

This conviction soon becomes shared between the two: May Bartram joins him in watching and waiting for the Beast’s appearance. She purchases a home nearby and meets with John Marcher regularly. Together they wait, and wait, and wait, and in time develop a special sort of relationship, united by their detachment from the commonplaces of daily life due to their perpetual suspense, and further drawn together by their shared secret. 

The Beast, however, makes no appearance until they’re late in life. Now aged and ill, May Bartram reveals that she knows what was fated to happen, and it has already happened; yet she refuses to tell John Marcher what it is.

What then has happened? 

He asks her, to which she answers coyly,

What was to.

John Marcher remains as blind to the Beast after its appearance as he was prior to it, and he is bewildered by the fact that it has happened without his knowledge of it. His unidentified future becomes his unidentified past.

Then, without sharing her knowledge, May Bartram dies. Marcher travels to Asia for a year, hoping for understanding; but for him, moments of understanding seem to come not from within, but rather from outside of himself. When he returns to visit May’s grave, he learns, by observing a man at the cemetery standing over a woman’s grave,

the way a woman was mourned when she had been loved for herself.

This understanding leads him to dismay, as he realizes that he had never loved May Bartram for herself, but only

in the chill of his egotism and the light of her use.

She is what he missed. She herself was not the Beast, but offered an escape from the Beast, an escape from his meaningless fate:

the escape would have been to love her; then, then he would have lived. She had lived–who could say now with what passion?–since she had loved him for himself.


The beautiful irony of the story is that John Marcher spends his life waiting for the thing to happen that never does happen, and that act of waiting for what’s never happening becomes the Beast that has colored his whole existence. As Henry James writes,

It was the truth, vivid and monstrous, that all the while he had waited the wait itself was his portion.

The man who was so obsessed with this moment of grand significance, had nothing of significance happen to him, precisely because of how he framed his fate. Marcher was always interpreting his experience in light of this unexpected expectation; he was a constant spectator of the spectacle; but in doing so, he passed by innumerable moments of life, with all of their possibilities, which fell short of his measure of momentousness. He could have loved May Bartram, were he selfless enough to see her as significant as she was.

My takeaway from this story is, Significance defined is significance seen. Don’t pass by moments and people and lessons of deep significance simply because of a future expectation of something of greater significance. Let significance be determined a posteriori rather than a priori. The future and the past only exist in our present perception of them; nothing is more grand than the significance within the present moment, because what exists inherently has more significance than what doesn’t. John Marcher wasted his early and middle life with his eyes fixated on the nebulous future, and then his late life on the disintegrating past; he would have escaped the Beast of an insignificant life had he destroyed his habitual detachment from the commonplace present, and instead developed a detached way of relating to the past and the future.