“If Only I Had Known”
Henry James always managed to keep certain themes in his works similar. The one that usually stands out most is his literary battles between American and European customs. This is especially apparent in three of his other works, Daisy Miller: A Study, Roderick Hudson, and The Portrait Of A Lady. However, in his short story, The Beast In The Jungle, there is another theme that takes center stage. That theme is fate; moreover, the failure to control that fate.
In The Beast In The Jungle, we are introduced to John Marcher, one of the main characters. Immediately afterwards, we meet May Bartram, someone he had met almost ten years prior in Naples, Italy, although he had accidentally thought it to be Rome. The two are getting along splendidly, in a flirtatious way, leaving the reader to wonder about the future of this would-be couple. However, it is then that we find out what eventually kills the hopes of any kind of romantic connection, as May recalls John’s special holdup:
You said you had had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, 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 the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you (TBITJ, 338).
Marcher believes that he is fated to experience something but he is not sure what it is that he is waiting for. May probes deeper, possibly revealing something about herself and her desire for a connection, asking, “Isn’t what you describe perhaps but the expectation–or at any rate the sense of danger, familiar to so many people–of falling in love?” (TBITJ, 339). He talks about a love that he had but that it was not this monumental thing that she talks of. She replies, saying, “Then it hasn’t been love” (TBITJ, 338).
This whole conversation has been one flirtatious period of time. However, it quickly turns back to the topic of his fate, cutting short any additional talk of love, possibly leading somewhere. This was a missed opportunity for the both of them because of his obsession with the mysterious destiny. The discussion ends with her promising to “watch with him” (TBITJ, 340). And yet, the reason that she will see him again is not to pursue any sort of normal relationship. It is simply the desire to be there when whatever happens to him occurs.
Later on in the story, he meets up with her on her birthday, bringing with him a “small trinket” (TBITJ, 344). He calls it a “customary offering, having known her now long enough to have established a hundred small traditions” (TBITJ, 344). Clearly, they have had contact for an extended period of time and yet, Marcher stays at arm’s length from her, not willing to fall in love because of his supposed fate. They discuss some more about his situation and the guilt he feels for her, wondering if she is wasting her time watching over him. “I sometimes ask myself if it’s quite fair. Fair I mean to have so involved and–since one may say it–interested you. I almost feel as if you hadn’t really had time to do anything else” (TBITJ, 344). She responds to his question with her own. “Anything else but be interested? Ah what else does one ever want to be?” (TBITJ, 344). They continue to talk and she drops another hint about what his actual fate might be, hoping that he will spot the bread crumbs:
Of course one’s fate is coming, of course it has come in its own form and its own way, all the while. Only, you know, the form and the way in your case were to have been–well, something so exceptional and, as one may say, so particularly your own (TBITJ, 345).
Unfortunately, he misses them completely, and instead, says, “You say ‘were to have been’ as if in your heart you had begun to doubt” (TBITJ, 345). While she is trying to say that, perhaps, the important event that he is waiting for has already occurred in the form of herself, he is still out in right field not realizing that the inning is over. He believes that what she is trying to say is that she now believes that nothing special will happen to him and makes the conclusion that, instead, she has just stopped believing in this mystical destiny. Another opportunity goes down the drain.
In Chapter 3, they converse again, and he praises her, saying, “how kind, how beautiful, you are to me! How shall I ever repay you?” (TBITJ, 347). May Bertram finally realizes the nature of their relationship and she has “her last grave pause, as if there might be a choice of ways” (TBITJ, 347). She quickly chooses for him to continue as he is. This conversation leads to a relapse of their relationship as she wants to tell him that she knows “something and that what she knows is bad” (TBITJ, 347).
Later on in the chapter, she acknowledges that she has “a deep disorder of the blood” (TBITJ, 348) and he immediately looses sight of the importance, saying to himself, “What if she should have to die before knowing, before seeing–?” (TBITJ, 348). Clearly, he is focusing much too much on his destiny and is not even lifting his head up out of the jungle to make sure that he is not supposed to be meeting another animal instead.
In Chapter 5, shortly before her death, she helps him to figure out the meaning of their lives. She tells him that “your not being aware of it is the strangeness in the strangeness. It’s the wonder of the wonder. It has touched you” (TBITJ, 355). As always, he does not understand that the special thing that fate had in store for him was to change his life, and that his life had been changed by her company. By their meeting and forming a friendship, his life had changed. He had grown up with a friend who he had treasured, and even though fate might have had scheduled them to become more than just friends, the connection that the two had did impact his life. It is finally when he visits her grave that he comprehends what his life has become and what is should have been. He realizes that the beast was actually the person that he met for the second time back in the house in Weatherend at the beginning of the story.
Henry James’ works have been known to have a certain autobiographical aspects to them. Looking at his life, one can see that he did not marry either and, just like in Daisy Miller: A Study and most of his other works, the main character’s story does not end happily. Throughout the entire time of the story, and more-so his life, John Marcher felt that there was something that he should be waiting for to happen. Something that was spectacular or, instead, brought suffering, he did not have any measure of a clue. Yet he continued to wait for that beast to jump out from the jungle and spark an incident. But what he never understood until the end of the story was that, perhaps, the only beast to be springing forth from the jungle of his life was the pretty swan. Perhaps, the old saying is truly correct, Carpe Diem.