He had been standing by the chimney-piece, fireless and sparely adorned, a small perfect old French clock and two morsels of rosy Dresden constituting all its furniture; and her hand grasped the shelf while she kept him waiting, grasped it a little as for support and encouragement. She only kept him waiting, however; that is he only waited. It had become suddenly, from her movement and attitude, beautiful and vivid to him that she had something more to give him; her wasted face delicately shone with it – it glittered almost as with the white lustre of silver in her expression. She was right, incontestably, for what he saw in her face was the truth, and strangely, without consequence, while their talk of it as dreadful was still in the air, she appeared to present it as inordinately soft. This, prompting bewilderment, made him but gape the more gratefully for her revelation, so that they continued for some minutes silent, her face shining at him, her contact imponderably pressing, and his stare all kind but all expectant. The end, nonetheless, was that what he had expected failed to come to him.
Henry James, “The Beast in the Jungle”
The Norton Anthology of American Literature” 1865-1914 Volume C., p. 544
This passage, from Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle”, is very representative of the work as a whole in that it presents an accurate and precise view of the two main characters, John Marcher and May Bartram. The character profiles which can be derived solely from this passage are important as they speak not only to the characters themselves, but also to the extent to which individuals can and will go to blind themselves to what is, quite literally, directly in front of them, all the while focusing on some obscure and far-off glory. Ultimately, this passage serves as a striking criticism of blind adherence to the Romantic ideals that were so prevalent in America in the early 19th Century, but also offers a kinder message that those ideals can be achieved, if only they are strived for with realistic aims.
The passage begins with what appears to be a description of John Marcher’s physical position and the items around his person: “He had been standing by the chimney-piece, fireless and sparely adorned, a small perfect old French clock and two morsels of rosy Dresden constituting all its furniture;” The words “fireless and sparely adorned” are of particular interest in this sentence; while it is clear that they are describing the chimney-piece, they can also be read as describing the man himself. John Marcher is not a man of fire or adornment; that is, his character lacks passion, an attribute often equated with fire and heat. Even the actual items that are around Marcher can be seen as reflecting his personality; the “old perfect French clock” and the “two small morsels of rosy Dresden” are by no means overly luxurious or decorative. Indeed, the French clock is extremely similar to Marcher’s personality: old-fashioned, deliberate and single-minded in its functioning, and concerned primarily with what’s to come. Time wouldn’t be important if people were not concerned about what it is they have to do at some point in the future; likewise, Marcher is always concerned about what will happen to him in the future, always looking ahead, eager to find what he sees as his destiny. The “morsels of Dresden” also reflect Marcher; they are beautiful, but fragile, pieces of porcelain, and, like the clock, they are old. Marcher’s Romantic idealism is a beautiful thing, but, in the end, fragile, as it cannot resist the truths of reality.
If the items around Marcher can be seen as reflecting his characteristics in this story, then May Bartram’s actions do the same for her: “…her hand grasped the shelf while she kept him waiting, grasped it a little as for support and encouragement.” At this point in the story, Bartram is fairly sick and weak, and thus probably literally needs the support offered by a shelf in order to stand on her feet; additionally, however, she has just told Marcher that she knows what his future glory is, or, more rightly, could be, and that it is not too late to achieve that glory. Readers are aware at this point that Bartram is in effect showing herself, or, at least, Marcher’s recognition of a shared love between the two, to be that future glory. She needs “support and encouragement” not only from the physical shelf, but also from Marcher; she wants to see that Marcher recognizes what it is she’s saying, and that Marcher agrees with her.
Marcher fails in this respect, however: “She only kept him waiting, however; that is he only waited.” There is no magical moment of recognition from Marcher, no understanding on his part of what Bartram is saying, despite Bartram’s need for that recognition; while it is obvious to readers that Bartram is laying herself on the line by trying to show Marcher just what his unfound glory is, Marcher himself simply does not see it. He refuses to give Bartram the support she seeks, refuses to understand that the moment he’s waited for for so long has arrived, and that Bartram is simply waiting for him to recognize it.
It is not the case, however, that Marcher sees absolutely nothing, as evident in the next few lines of this particular passage: “It had become suddenly, from her movement and attitude, beautiful and vivid to him that she had something more to give him; her wasted face delicately shone with it – it glittered almost as with the white lustre of silver in her expression.” Marcher does see that Bartram is offering something; however, what he sees is different than what is reality. Marcher is still viewing Bartram as simply a means to an end; in his mind, she has information that will help him learn what his glorious future holds, the “thing” he’s been waiting for to happen to him all his life. Marcher sees Bartram as “shining” with what she can tell him; her face “glittered… with the white lustre of silver”. What he fails to see, however, is that Bartram isn’t glittering with a secret to give to him, but instead a secret to share with him. It is also not a secret she can tell him; he needs to see it and realize it on his own.
This is an excellent point to note that, throughout the work, Bartram is identified with light; examples just from this single passage abound: “her wasted face delicately shone with it…”; “…vivid to him…”; “…her face shining at him…”; “…it glittered almost as with the white lustre of silver in her expression.” This stands in stark contrast to how Marcher himself is portrayed; indeed, at the very beginning of this piece, he is identified as “fireless”. Bartram, then, acts as a light for Marcher; her shining in his life is meant to show him the way to discovering just what it is he feels he has in store for him.
That Bartram’s light can illuminate the way, however, does not mean it will tell him the way. As mentioned before, Marcher fails to recognize that Bartram, standing in front of him, is offering herself to him in terms of love; Marcher simply doesn’t see it. She reveals that whatever it is he is waiting for is yet to come; he is grateful for this, but doesn’t see that Bartram’s revelation is in fact the thing he has been waiting for: “This, prompting bewilderment, made him but gape the more gratefully for her revelation, so that they continued for some minutes silent… … his stare all kind but all expectant.” Even at this late point, when Bartram has lit the way for Marcher, showing him that what he has been expecting is within his reach, that the moment he has based his entire life around has finally arrived, he still fails to see it, still wants Bartram to tell him.
Ultimately, Bartram does not tell Marcher what it is he wants to hear. “The end, none the less, was that what he had expected failed to come to him.” Marcher did not receive the revelation he had been counting on Bartram to deliver; he is no closer at the close of this passage to understanding what it is he’s been waiting for than at the beginning of the passage. Even though Bartram put herself right in front of him, provided him with every opportunity to discover what it was he was waiting for, lit the way for him to see, he couldn’t; Marcher was too busy focusing on the future, and what Bartram could tell him about it, to realize that the very event he so eagerly anticipated was occurring in the present.
Marcher’s inability to see Bartram’s message stands as a strong commentary on the Romantic idealism that was popular in literature in the early 19th Century. Here is a man who has lived his whole life fascinated by Romantic ideals, sure that something on a grand scale would happen to him at some point, and all the time, while he was waiting, he was blind to what was actually occurring around him, namely his relationship with Bartram. What makes this work, and in particular what makes this passage, so relevant is that even while criticizing the mind set that places so much importance on Romantic ideals, it manages to show that Romanticism and Realism can coexist. Bartram’s role of providing light for Marcher can be seen as very Romantic, and certainly the language used to describe her, and thus, as it is Marcher’s limited perspective the story is told from, Marcher’s own perception of Bartram, has Romantic influences, speaking of her “glittering” and her face “…delicately (shining)…”; if Marcher had realized Bartram’s place in his life, he could have lived out his Romantic dream. However, he was so wrapped up in dreaming about that Romantic dream that he couldn’t see this fact. The real message of this passage, then, can be read as being that Romantic ideals are achievable, if only a person keeps a realistic enough view of the world to recognize what is going on around him or her.
Ultimately, this passage stands out because it so perfectly sums up both of the main characters; Marcher is passionless, “fireless”, (ironic, of course, as he expects something passionate to happen to him), blinded by a dream, while Bartram is full of light, “shining”, and willing to help Marcher find his dream, but not to tell it to him. The passage also serves excellently to exhibit how Romanticism can work within the world of reality. James, while writing both this passage and the work as a whole, drew from both Romantic and Realistic sources in order to craft a story that, while perhaps unfortunate for the protagonists, serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of blind faith in Romanticism, and continues to be relevant today.
James, Henry. “The Beast in the Jungle” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1865-1914. 6th Edition. Vol. C. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. 524-553.