I: The Beast
‘The Beast in the Jungle’ (1903) inaugurates the haunting final stretch of James’ work as a writer of tales, in which the protagonists grope obscurely after a life they have lost or have never had. The protagonist of ‘Fordham Castle’ (1904), jettisoned by an ambitious wife, ends up declaring ‘Why certainly I’m dead’ (James 1996:660); the husband in ‘Mora Montravers’ (1909) is outstripped by his wife much as doleful Charlotte Prime was by the dashing Mrs Guy in ‘Paste’ (1899), and ends up musing ruefully on the fun other people are having; in ‘The Bench of Desolation’ (1910) the protagonist finds his whole life enveloped by a castratory female who keeps him in her clutches, to which he somewhat sickeningly surrenders. The iconic status of ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ among the works of the last period, as attested by a mass of critical studies and frequent allusion or imitation in later stories and films, is due to its disengagement of this quintessential Jamesian theme, treated with bitter-sweet comedy in The Ambassadors but now attaining a paroxystic lucidity possible only within the skeletal format of a novella. To be sure, Flaubert’s L’Éducation sentimentale is a long novel about an ‘unlived life’; but its protagonist is often merely a cipher as the novel opens a panorama on a whole historical generation condemned to futility. The protagonist of James’s tale is a cipher, too, and glories in being so; he is not the representative of a generation, but an Everyman figure. Despite his sense of being visited by a unique destiny, his solitude is a beast such as might leap on anyone. His nightmare strikes the chord of recognition as much as those of Kafka’s protagonists.
The intensity of the parable is enforced by the exclusion of irrelevant action to a degree unusual even for James. It is a story in which nothing happens, except that the lady dies and the gentleman travels disconsolately, and even these are negative events. All the protagonists actually do is talk, and there is no other dialogue than theirs. Their talk draws them together on one plane, keeps them apart on another. The talk is dedicated to a single topic, the event that the protagonist John Marcher has always dreaded, without knowing what it is to be, and which he figures as the leap of a terrifying beast. It is literally talk about nothing, for when the beast does appear, it turns out to be Marcher’s realization that he has never lived at all. The story gives Marcher a chance to avoid this fate, but one has the impression that this is merely a notional escape, and that he could not have been otherwise that he is. Thus the two events of the story – his missing his last chance, and his realization that he has done so – are only the fall-out from a fate that has always already happened.
The tale owes its iconic status also to its correspondence to a high literary ideal of Flaubert and Mallarmé: to write a book about nothing. James first essayed this in The Sacred Fount, but with less clarity about where he was going. The immense busyness of James’s style is in direct proportion to an ever-increasing minimalism at the level of plot incidents. In ‘The Beast in the Jungle,’ despite its boys’ adventure story title, there is nothing so substantial as the letters of a long-dead poet (as in ‘The Aspern Papers’) or the apparitions of threatening ghosts (as in ‘The Turn of the Screw’) for the characters to fret and speculate about. They circle about an elusive premonition that can scarcely be articulated and that, when it does take substance, first in a non-event, and then in the painful recollection of that non-event, turns out to be nothing more than the revelation of a lack. But this lack, the ‘sounded void’ of Marcher’s existence, is tacitly presented as a triumph. A book about nothing must almost necessarily be a book about its own composition, as we see in the ‘empty’ novels of Beckett and Blanchot. The ingenious structure of James’s tale makes its entire telling a matter of long-drawn-out deferral, ending in the realization that the deferral is its very substance. The protagonist exists only in the mode of deferral. This is so much in line with the aesthetic dynamic of the writing itself that, with Leo Bersani, one can view with suspicion the flat moral with which the tale ends and take with a grain of salt the tragic desolation of Marcher’s last state. ‘Tragic’ is an epithet here misapplied; ‘irony’ fits better, especially if one recalls the mordant conclusions of ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ and ‘The Lesson of the Master.’ So entrenched a celibate as Henry James, whose solitude was so amply furnished, can adopt a tragic posture here only as a conventional front. The nannyism of the critics who take Marcher’s desolation so solemnly, and who proceed to lecture him on his egotism, psychic immaturity, gay closetedness, lack of sexual fulfilment, would have brought to the author’s lips an ironic smile. James revels in the great void of consciousness, which he increasingly opposes to the intrusive crowdedness of the external world. Donna Przybylowicz has written a powerful phenomenological analysis of the solipsistic world of James’s last fictions, an abyss from which she would have us recoil in dread. Yet James was perhaps well advised to follow the line of his development to its ultimate reaches, even if it doomed to incompletion so rarefied a production as The Sense of the Past. These late writings open a new window on the residual realism of the three great novels of ‘the major phase,’ showing it as mined from within by an urge to consume all events and certitudes in a vortex of questioning self-reflection.
Late James always begins in medias res, indeed so deep in the thick of things that it may take one a few pages to register where one is and with what species of characters one is dealing. Proleptic allusions create a puzzle for the reader, one that often eludes precise solution. ‘What determined the speech that startled him in the course of their encounter scarcely matters, being probably but some words spoken by himself quite without intention – spoken as they lingered and slowly moved together after their renewal of acquaintance’ (James 1909:61). This opening sentence catches the drifting passivity in Marcher’s character – he does many things ‘quite without intention,’ and it is this lack of firm and focused intention that is to be his downfall or, in the reading I am proposing, his secret strength – for has not his passivity something in common with that of the artist, to whom things ‘befall’? The sentence also plays with time in a way characteristic of the story. It is impossible to pin down either her ‘speech’ or his ‘words’ that prompted it when we eventually get to the scene of their lingering together. We look back and forward, but cannot grasp the moment referred to, just as Marcher and May look back and forward but never settle firmly in a present. All their actions and words have a reminiscent and anticipatory quality – their conversations are presented as repetitions of things they have already often said to one another, rehearsing dim anticipations based on their shared premonition. The reader is lured into their labyrinth and induced into that condition of suspense that may simply be an ineradicable feature of human temporality, if it be true, as Yeats felt, that ‘life is a long preparation for something that never happens.’ Przybylowicz faults Marcher and May for their inauthentic relationship to time and death, their lack of that ‘resolve’ for which Heidegger called; but what human being lives fully in the present and face to face with death? Sleep-walking through life is in some degree or other a universal condition. For a literary artist the present exists only as the product of writing; ‘live in the present’ is a counsel with no bearing on his or her task; writing involves a kind of death to the lived present, which is surely an act of ‘resolve.’ Marcher is not a writer, yet the peculiarities of his existence are precisely those of the ghostly life of a writer as James evokes it in other tales. A writer, as a writer, is a being to whom nothing on earth can happen. If, like Zola and Trollope, a writer allows the impact of the day’s events to be felt directly in the pages of the work, the price risked is a loss of writerly identity. Events exist, for the writer, only to be transmuted into consciousness and into words, and in the process to lose their original positivity, subjected to infinite deferral. This is the sense of Mallarmé’s dictum that ‘tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre.’ Dubious as a statement of general philosophy or a maxim for practical living, it expresses perfectly the dynamic of writerly existence. The oddness of Marcher is close to the oddness of the writer, who wears a mask on the stage of real life.
The story draws on all the conveniences of the novella-genre. The two protagonists act and speak only along the schematic lines laid down at the start. Their names, Marcher and May, already endow them with an aura of seasonal melancholy – they are autumnal beings, and their spring is laced with sorrowful apprehensions. Marcher has a feeble identity, ‘he was lost in the crowd’ (61), and the feebler his identity the more intense the narcissism with which he clutches at it. The guests admiring the treasures of Weatherend, some giving themselves up ‘with the last seriousness… to mysterious appreciations and measurements’ (61), invite the reader to delicate perceptions and assessments in responding to the narrative now beginning. They also prepare for the different kind of connaisseurship that marks Marcher as he measures the mysteries of his fate. ‘When they were two they either mingled their sounds of ecstasy or melted into silences of even deeper import,’ – this anticipates the shared silences of John and May, who are ‘two’ but fail to be ‘a couple.’ Marcher has known May long since, but has forgotten her: her face, ‘affected him as the sequel of something of which he had lost the beginning’ (62). Marcher lives in a distracted half-consciousness, not alert to the deepest possibilities life holds out to him. Yet against critical readers who take every opportunity to pounce on Marcher and strip bare his deficiencies, one may feel a certain sympathy with him here, for his forgetfulness is a common condition, an inevitable side-effect of the onward press of events. It could even be argued that it is the very intensity of a self-absorbed consciousness that makes Marcher so forgetful of names and places; his narcissism is like that of a writer consumed by his task.
Belatedness marks their first encounter; she is ‘distinctly handsome, though ever so much older– older than when he had seen her before’ (63). May drifts like an autumn leaf in this October scene, and James draws lavishly on the palette of effects the month proffers: ‘the way the autumn day looked into the high windows as it waned; the way the red light, breaking at the close from under a low sombre sky, reached out in a long shaft and played over old wainscots, old tapestry, old gold, old colour’ (64). James makes solitude so beautiful that it seems philistine to wish a happy married life for his protagonists. Their initial conversation is a comedy of errors, his memories being wildly inaccurate, hers perfectly lucid. Maternally, she supplies him with his past and shores up his identity (see Mellard, 112). The evocation of Rome and Pompeii in their retrospect sets their past against a background of sepulchres. There is sadness in the thought that ‘the past, invoked, invited, encouraged, could give them, naturally, no more than it had’ (66). Their earlier encounter, when she was twenty, he twenty-five, has left a curious sense of blankness. ‘They looked at each other as with the feeling of an occasion missed; the present would have been so much better if the other, in the far distance, in the foreign land, hadn’t been so stupidly meagre’ (66). They failed to become intimate then, and they will fail again, for the failure is no accident but has a constitutional basis in their characters, especially Marcher’s.
‘He was really almost reaching out in imagination – as against time – for something that would do, and saying to himself that if it didn’t come this sketch of a fresh start would show for quite awkwardly bungled’ (67). What in fact ‘does’ to relaunch their strange friendship is the wraith-like idea he allegedly shared with her back then. Time, as he looks back, is a blank page; imagination can fill it only with unsatisfying fictions, until she announces the theme that has bound her thoughts to him even when he had forgotten her and that will now bind him to her. ‘Then it was, just at the turn…’ (67) that May delivers what we could identify as ‘the speech that startled him,’ except that he is not startled, because he does not yet know what she is talking about. ‘What she brought out, at any rate, quite cleared the air and supplied the link– the link it was so odd he should frivolously have managed to lose. “You know you told me something I’ve never forgotten and that again and again has made me think of you since”’ (67-8). He fails to remember and she holds fire for a moment before speaking out: ‘“Has it ever happened?” Then it was that, while he continued to stare, a light broke for him and the blood slowly came to his face, which began to burn with recognition’ (69). This cannot be ‘the speech that startled him’ either, since it is not suggested by ‘some words spoken by himself.’
‘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’ (71). This quite bizarre donnée – ideal for a novella, impossible in a novel – is freshly explained by Marcher as something ‘to wait for – to have to meet, to face, to see suddenly break out in my life; possibly destroying all further consciousness’ (72). The language echoes a famous 1900 letter to Morton Fullerton: ‘The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life – and it seems to be the port also, in sooth to which my course again finally directs itself! This loneliness (since I mention it!) – what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper, about me, at any rate, than anything else: deeper than my “genius,” deeper than my “discipline,” deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep countermining of art’ (James 1984:170). When May asks, ‘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?’ (72), his reply suggests that he has not really had that experience. Some critics bluntly gloss this as referring to ‘sexual experience’; but May’s question could be addressed to the most experienced of Don Juans and still have its force.
The enunciation of the theme that saves their present encounter from being inconsequential, sheds light into their past, and gives them a shared perspective on the awaited future is very much like the inspiration of a story-teller who finds a motif to make sense of the diverse material of experience. May and Marcher will shape their existence as a work of art, united by the image that haunts Marcher and that she has remembered. As she waits with him, Marcher is shown using her, seeing her only in the light of his distinguished secret. Is James delivering a severe moral sermon here, or merely registering the phenomenon of celibate detachment or of writerly detachment? Again, irony or even comedy lurks in the description of his attitude: ‘There was that in his situation, no doubt, that disposed him too much to see her as a mere confidant, taking all her light for him from the fact – the fact only – of her interest in his predicament’ (77). If we see the tale simply as a sermon against self-centredness, then ‘Marcher becomes one of James’s least interesting and least appealing characters’ (Bersani, 209). We will see that such avatars of Marcher as Joyce’s Mr Duffy and Sillitoe’s Harry are indeed uninteresting and unappealing. What gives Marcher grandeur is not only the thoroughness of his encounter with the essential loneliness of his life, but the correlation of this with depth and scope of consciousness – the very stuff of art for the writer James.
Marriage to May is barred by the secret itself: ‘Something or other lay in wait for him, amid the twists and the turns of the months and the years, like a crouching Beast in the Jungle… a man of feeling didn’t cause himself to be accompanied by a lady on a tiger-hunt’ (79). It is easy to see this as a delusive, paralyzing image. But could we not imagine that Marcher wants to spare May the agony of being married to a man as self-sufficient and self-absorbed as he is? Or, more metaphysically, is there not an unweddable solitude in everyone? Again the figure of the writer looms: one cannot marry a writer qua writer; the plane on which a writer lives as a writer is not that of flesh and blood. This can have a bad effect on the writer’s other, ‘real’ life, and James revels in telling us just how bad; but the last word about Marcher is not his egoism or his final desolation, mere side-effects of his unique mode of imaginative existence.
Meanwhile ‘she was all the while looking at his life, judging it, measuring it, in the light of the thing she knew, which grew to be at last, with the consecration of the years, never mentioned between them save as “the real truth” about him’ (80). She gains a position of epistemic superiority and control as the judge of Marcher’s existence. She is secretly in control of the story all along: ‘their friendship builds not only on her clearer recollection of their original meeting, but also on her continued control of information… In making his secret her own, she condescends him into the most abject dependence upon her’ (Heyns, 112). This reading certainly makes May a less pallid character; she triumphs over Marcher much as Mrs Guy triumphs over Charlotte Prime in ‘Paste,’ or as the Master triumphs over the gullible disciple in ‘The Lesson of the Master,’ as the one who has succeeded in living to the full. In a sense she has profited from him as he has from her, adopted him as an amusing occupation. ‘A modern reader schooled, say, in Foucault would notice here [p. 81] the slightly ominous typification of her as ‘his kind wise keeper’: a labour of love, of course, but also a position of power, the dedication of an unpaid nanny… It is surely not surprising that this infantilizing relationship never matures into sexual equality’ (Heyns, 113). ‘As their relationship continues, the sense of power and of a marked, rather free-floating irony about May Bartram becomes stronger and stronger, even in proportion to Marcher’s accelerating progress toward self-ignorance and toward a blindly selfish expropriation of her emotional labor’ (Sedgwick, 210). May, then, would be another of James’s manipulative, castratory females, alongside Mrs Newsome, Kate Croy, Maggie Verver and the various women modelled on Edith Wharton in The Finer Grain (see Tintner 1999:20-57). Another angle would be to consider May as possessing psychoanalytical insight, as having made a definitive diagnosis of Marcher’s pathology. She sees the narcissistic structure of his personality, concretized in his obsession with the Beast, and realizes that it is an impregnable fortress. But let us practice a little eidetic variation: transpose the story ever so slightly – imagine May as the diligent secretary of a writer who is obsessed with his task and fears he is merely using her, as he is; yet she finds more satisfaction in her human devotion to him than he finds in his inhuman devotion to his calling.
The rest of the world of course thought him queer, but she, she only, knew how, and above all why, queer; which was precisely what enabled her to dispose the concealing veil in the right folds. She took his gaiety from him – since it had to pass with them for gaiety – as she took everything else. (81)
Note again the overtones of this ‘taking’ – the suggestion that she takes from him his manhood. Marcher’s narcissism make him unfit for commerce with the ordinary world; he lives in the Imaginary and is out of place in the order of Symbolic objectivity, to use Lacan’s terms – terms that fit this story like a glove. She gives him the appearance of a normal social existence, though in reality their time together is spent worshipping at the shrine of his narcissistic idol. Perhaps in indulging his narcissism as she does, she ensures her hold on him, providing the mirror of a mother’s smile in which he can be secure in the admiration of his own image. She flatters and humours him, protecting his narcissism against the shock of the Real. Mellard, the best Lacanian reader of the story, talks of how literary texts interact with the psyche of the reader, noting that ‘the psyche – the ego – of any subject is always in a process of constant creation and recreation…; it is always “in play” through a constant interaction of features motivated by substitutions, displacements, and other functions such as condensation and contiguous referentiality’ (107). This is a warning against the tendency of many readers to freeze Marcher’s development, reducing it to a predetermined schematic trajectory, and to freeze their own response as readers or position as critics. Marcher is indeed fixated in the Imaginary, but this is not static, but a ‘constant play of mirror-stage identifications’ (108) – indeed James shows us that pre-Oedipal narcissism can be an exciting adventure – something very like the solitary excitement chronicled in his Notebooks as he plans his fictions. Mellard locates the fascinating power of the tale in the way it ‘so actively and repetitiously recreates that moment of the mirror stage when the subject discovers itself in its identificatory other’ (108). May, then, for Marcher is what one’s mother’s smile if for every infant; and at her death he is summoned to advance to the Oedipal stage. How can a grown man represent such archaic formative experiences of the psyche? Perhaps he can do so because those experiences live on in our adult experiences, and we continue to be torn beween the rival claims of the infantine Imaginary and the adult Symbolic. As a novella protagonist, in any case, Marcher does not have to be credible as an adult character; the rules of the realist novel do not here apply.
Lacanian orthodoxy may render Mellard’s reading rather conventional: ‘The tale’s incredible redundancy is the result of the power of the first, the mirror, identifications necessary to the constitution of an ego-subjectivity, But if the tale exhibits a satisfactory conclusion for most readers it does so because Marcher finally achieves a long-delayed dissolution of the Oedipus complex’ (Mellard, 111). I wonder if the end of the story has this unambiguously positive thrust; perhaps it leaves Marcher at an ambivalent moment of choice, summoned to adulthood, but still drawn to choose regression. But is the language of choice at all appropriate? The bleak consciousness that Marcher experiences is not a conversion in his way of existence but the ripe fruit of his years of deferral, and it does not prompt him to go forth and ‘live’ but to cast himself on his muse’s tomb. One might even say that the story ends with an act of self-entombment, in Stoic resolve – even in a heroic Nietzschean embrace of solitude.
One might also query the ahistorical character of the psychoanalytical discussions. Sedgwick’s discussion of the tale in Epistemology of the Closet (which goes back to 1983-4 and is probably the core from which her book developed) sets it in a precise historical context, as part of her historicizing of a way of thinking and behaving called ‘the closet,’ which not a permanent structure but the contingent product of developments in society, law and medicine or psychology in the later nineteenth century. The owl of wisdom emerges at twilight, and Sedgwick lights up the culture of the closet just as it is disappearing from history (in Europe at least). Is psychoanalysis immune to such historicization? Lacan’s anatomy of the psyche may touch on invariables of human nature, but to flourish his terminology as if it can be applied without problematization to people of all epochs and cultures is to risk missing the concrete texture of the situations analyzed. If James’s story lends itself so fully to a Freudian and Lacanian reading, that might largely be because it is a product of the same cultural moment.
Lacanians say that Marcher casts May as the all-knowing phallic mother. The phantasmatic endowment of the mother with a phallus is a protection against castration anxiety, like fetishism. ‘May plays the role of the mother who permits the child to believe that he is all to or for her’ (120), a role often pathogenic. ‘The oscillation between rapturous identification with the other person and aggressive alienation from her in the mirror stage characterizes the relationship between Marcher and May Bartram. It does not develop, but it allows Marcher to acquire an Imaginary ego. When she dies, she gives birth to him as an individual who for the first time feels distinct and able to feel pain’ (Wexler, 5). I do not see much rapture or aggression in the May-Marcher relationship. ‘Repeating the phrase “the thing,” Marcher keeps his expectation vague, but by now it also functions as a euphemism for the penis as the primary unnamed thing and invokes the Symbolic phallus’ (Wexler, 6). Surely James protects the tale from such a collapse of the Symbolic phallus back into the physical penis? The language of the story is quite asexual, unlike many other Jamesian compositions. The challenge to the narcissistic Marcher concerns love, not ‘sexual fulfilment,’ a topic on which some literary critics seem ready to sermonize at the drop of a hat. For all we know, Marcher may have had as varied a sexual career as Frédéric Moreau (in the love affairs he alludes to ); but as in the case of Flaubert’s protagonist, that would only further underline his failure to break through to an adult life, his imprisonment in the unreal and superficial world of the Imaginary. Wexler’s application of Lacan is sweeping: ‘Marcher illustrates the narcissistic phase of “ambivalence proper to the ‘partial drives’ of scoptophilia, sadomasochism, and homosexuality, as well as the stereotyped, ceremonial formalism of the aggressivity that is manifested in them” (Écrits 25)’ (7). Here the ‘diagnosis’ risks erasing the subtle ebb and flow of the tale and of imposing parts of a psychoanalytical identikit that are not thematic or present in the tale at all. Wexler’s comments on the encounter with the fellow-mourner in the final scene border on the juvenile. ‘This face . . . looked into Marcher’s own, at the cemetery, with an expression like the cut of a blade. He felt it, that is, so deep down that he winced at the steady thrust’ (122). ‘Marcher occupies a feminine role in this figure of emotional defloration. At the manifest level, what he discovers is that it is possible to love another without losing oneself, that accepting lack (castration) is necessary to feel post-Oedipal desire. What occurs at the latent level is that the other man’s “steady thrust” marks the entry of the long-awaited beast into Marcher’s jungle’ (Wexler, 7). This ties up with Sedgwick’s remark that ‘a slightest potential of Whitmanian cruisiness seems at first to tinge the air’ (210). Perhaps the man in the graveyard represents invasive reality, comparable to that of the father in the Oedipal stage; but to figure him as sexual assailant rather ruins the tale. Mellard is more on the mark: ‘Marcher assumes the Law of castration in an encounter with the Other. The face that cuts Marcher loose from his primary narcissism is that of a stranger… What Marcher envies in the man is his acknowledged loss, his ability to feel lack, privation’ (132). Using the language of Heidegger’s Being and Time¸ Przybylowicz similarly sees Marcher as encountering the reality of his own mortality and finitude. The man in the graveyard is an aggressor insofar as he thrusts on Marcher the claims of real life and the splendours of passion, but Marcher is well defended against them; he is like a writer who awakes from absorbing labours to notice the busy world around him and feel he has missed out on it – only to resume his labours again.
James does seem to play with closet-culture insofar as May’s role recalls that of a lady companion enabling a homosexual man to ‘pass’ as ‘normal’ in the eyes of society; writing only eight years after the 1895 trial and disgrace of Oscar Wilde and only three years after Wilde’s death, James would have touched on a theme of high topicality here. The phrase, ‘the real truth about you’ could easily be a cipher for sexual orientation. ‘The semantic shift that makes available words like “queer” and “gaiety” to Sedgwick’s analysis may be no more than fortuitous; nevertheless, the fact that they seem so readily to fill the gaps in the story helps us to see that there are gaps to be filled: Marcher’s passivity seems to demand a stronger explanation than the self-absorbed blindness and inertia that are proffered in the tale’ (Heyns, 113). Sedgwick somewhat anachronistically suggests that May would like to see Marcher flourish by recognizing his sexual orientation, but Heyns more plausibly suggests that the power James gives her is ‘derived exactly from a heterosexual imperative of which May is, in fact, the exponent in the tale’ (113). May is ready, however, to sacrifice that imperative – like the devoted secretary who sublimates her passion for the writer we imagined a moment ago. It certainly runs athwart the peculiar genius of Marcher, just as the calls of real life are threatening distractions to the committed writer.
Amid the flow of time, a datable event surfaces, when he visits her on her birthday ‘at a season of thick fog and general outward gloom’ (83). His expensive present ‘was one of his proofs to himself… that he hadn’t sunk into real selfishness’ (84). These little proofs are offered at the altar of his own self-esteem; they are defensive rituals. He does not at all think of reaching out and taking responsibility for her, as she has taken responsibility for him. Her room, where they have discussed his secret over the years, he sees as ‘the written history of his whole middle life’ (86). The accumulation of unlived life in this room has become utterly stifling. She says, mixing admiration and warning: ‘You’ve achieved something almost unprecedented in the way of getting used to danger. Living with it so long and so closely you’ve lost your sense of it’ (87-8). His choice of isolation might be ‘heroic,’ but it is also suicidal. He senses that she is holding something back: ‘You know something I don’t…. You know what’s to happen.’ She assures him: ‘You’ll never find out’ (89).
To describe James’s scenario one is inclined to draw on the terms used of Poe’s tales: the uncanny, the fantastic or the supernatural. James will use those resources to the full in ‘The Jolly Corner,’ in which the protagonist is haunted by himself. The present tale is a kind of metaphysical horror story – to refer to a genre more qualified by entertaining thrills than a sense of the tragic; its suspense is sustained unbroken as layer after layer of supposition is peeled away until at the end the protagonist faces a worse realization than any he had imagined, yet one that may give him, as it gives the readers, a certain grim satisfaction. The dangling conversations between John and May stimulate the type of interest aroused by another Poe genre, the detective story. John Marcher’s secret, like Poe’s ‘purloined letter,’ is hidden in plain view – at least the clear-sighted May can see it plainly. It is the blindness that prevents him from seeing it that is itself the secret.
When literature devises extreme or uncanny situations – those of Beckett or Kafka for example – its purpose is to light up some dimension of human existence by pushing it to the limit. Drawing on Bakhtin, Rowan Williams, in his inaugural lecture at the 2007 Oxford Patristic Conference, compared the extreme situations engineered by Dostoievski with the temptations to which ancient Christian ascetics exposed themselves, with the purpose of allowing truth to come to light. In the case of Dostoievski, who allows full liberty to all his characters as he pushes them into situations of carnivalesque licence, what truth will be manifested is not known in advance. Christian truth shines out, to be sure, but alongside other visions that are not necessarily overcome by it. In the case of James, one is hard put to it to say what truth emerges at the close of his most elaborate fictions, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, which allow for a ‘redemptive’ reading but by no means impose it. In the shorter compass of a novella he can control the development of his themes more tightly, at the risk of reducing the characters to two-dimensional ciphers. John Marcher and May Bertram come nowhere near Merton Densher or Maggie Verver if judged by the novelistic standards of rounded portraiture. They are figures, rather, in a parable, and the power of the latter genre lies in the impact of the message it drives home. But does their story drive home a single message? It seems to preach against the danger of detachment and self-sufficiency, but in an undertone it glorifies them; James is of the devil’s party without knowing it. The moral or psychological truth shines out, but alongside another truth that undercuts it. Or say that James’s parable is exposed to any meanings that accrue to it, and the truth that on the surface it claims to articulate is actually a screen against other truths bursting to reveal themselves.
Literature, whether novelistic or novellistic, will reveal, at the heart of the extreme scenarios it stages, some common human situation, now enhanced and starkly exposed so that we may consider it at a depth not often possible in real life. Think for example of the scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers in which the dead woman returns, begging for her sisters’ love. Is the situation unreal, or hyper-real? Faced with such situations that go beyond the rational categories of common space, time and causality, we are in the realm of what Kant calls ‘the sublime.’ The work of art springs on us a ‘saturated phenomenon’ (as Jean-Luc Marion calls it) that swamps our usual categories of apprehension. There are lots of stories about lonely old men, but that the consciousness of loss and of the folly that led to it should gather with concentrated power in the graphic image of the long-awaited leap of a deadly beast is an ingenious invention that carries the normal situation into the realm of sublime fantasy.
‘The Beast in the Jungle’ could have been written as a delicate tale of sentiment, in which a woman sadly realizes that her beloved is so self-absorbed that he will never be capable of appreciating and returning her devotion, never commit himself to taking responsibility for her or to sharing his life with her, and, furthermore, as she intuitively grasps, that he will end up in desolate solitude, still imagining that his cherished detachment is a sign of distinction when in fact it is a failure to live or a refusal to live (or that he will lose this protective illusion and realize that his life has been empty). All that could have been put forward in straightforward narration without any mysteries, riddles or symbols. Then the man, at the end of the story, could realize in exquisite agony that it is ‘too late!’ – as Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau does when the now aged Madame Arnoux finally offers herself to him, or as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin does when the once spurned Tatyana reappears as a glittering vision now out of his grasp.
James creates a more potent epiphany of loss by having his protagonists wait their whole lives long for the great revelation, which then descends with massive force as the spring of a mighty beast. For this to work, they must be mystified as to what kind of revelation they await. Marcher comes tantalizingly near to guessing its nature, in incremental inductions that are part of the technique of metaphysical suspense. Rather early on its nature has become clear to May, so that their conversations are no longer simply a shared guessing-game but are complicated by May’s hints of what she suspects or knows and her hesitations about revealing it, her efforts to keep him in ignorance of it, if she cannot save him from it entirely. Already at the end of Chapter II she has a clear vision of Marcher’s peril, from the outside, and knows to what crushing moment of insight he is heading. In the period after her intimation of this, on her birthday, ‘other things that passed between them were in relation to this hour but the character of recalls and results’ (90). Their communion has entered a new phase. Yet the more their thoughts are intimately entangled, the more the void and distance between them loom painfully; for Marcher continues to keep May at a distance; the interest that unites them also separates them.
Marcher’s reaction to May’s words on her birthday is primarily a rather superficial one (though he is increasingly troubled by their more worrying undertones):
He had been visited by one of his occasional warnings against egotism. He had kept up, he felt, and very decently on the whole, his consciousness of the importance of not being selfish, and it was true that he had never sinned in that direction without promptly enough trying to press the scales the other way. He often repaired his fault, the season permitting, by inviting his friend to accompany him to the opera. (90)
Notice the word ‘visited’ here, which anticipates the ‘visitation’ he undergoes at the end of the story. He does not want May to be the slave of his obsession, and the distraction from it is that they share a musical life. There is an ironic deflation or bathos in the word ‘opera’ here. This is another of Marcher’s ploys for avoiding recognition of May’s passion for him. She is ‘a good deal talked about’ (91) as she accompanies him to the opera ‘a dozen nights a month’ (90); this seems not to bother her. Goyet objects that it ‘has no incidence on them or on the progress of the story; one can consider the description of these rumours as useless; there was certainly no call to rewrite Anna Karenina’ (73). But what if James is actually making a witty intertextual allusion to Tolstoy’s novel? Anna is distraught by gossip about her in the neighbouring opera boxes, but May is actually quite pleased, since the gossip substantiates to the full the role she and Marcher are playing as a pseudo-couple (nor would May face the ostracism that menaces Anna, if only because unlike Anna she is not married). In any case we are not in a novel but in a novella, and the recklessness of the couple’s behaviour does not have to negotiate social pressures and expectations realistically; their charade of potentially scandalous normalcy has a positive incidence, covering over the queerness of the Imaginary situation they are living out and at the same time expressing their cheeky detachment from the constraints of the Symbolic order.
There is a certain complacency, again ironically presented, in the way Marcher regulates his moral economy, compensating for selfishness in one direction by generous gestures in another. ‘Marcher’s moral squeamishness is self-evidently ineffectual, all the more selfish for his anxiety not to be in the wrong’ (Heyns, 115). But what he above all misses is that the issue is not one of moral equity but of hearing a call, taking a step – ‘the awful daring of a moment’s surrender’ (T. S. Eliot) – that would revolutionize his existence.
Eventually he does face the unease her words have planted: ‘the day inevitably came for a further sounding of their depths. These depths, constantly bridged over by a structure firm enough in spite of its lightness and of its occasional oscillation in the somewhat vertiginous air, invited on occasion, in the interest of their nerves, a dropping of the plummet and a measurement of the abyss’ (92). Even Jamesian characters cannot float forever in the element of the unspoken, battening on enigmas, obscurities, indeterminacies. The moment always comes – after long-drawn-out errancies in every bypath of supposition and speculation – when a spade will be called a spade. There is a sequence of such moments in this tale, but only the last has the weight of full and final explication.
For the last few paragraphs I have been following the tale according to its exoteric meaning; but what generates excitement at the deepest level is not the sentimental misfortunes of Marcher and May (her illness and death are treated rather blithely) but precisely the sensation of ‘a dropping of the plummet and a measurement of the abyss,’ a sensation assiduously cultivated in the ‘vertiginous air’ of James’s style. Fabulously eloquent at twenty, James at sixty has developed a style that takes the full measure of whatever it touches, recording in ever more complex folds the resonances set off in consciousness. Here, as ever, it is the realization coming to birth in the protagonist’s consciousness that holds the interest of author and reader, and the tragedy of his missed life is a mere McGuffin relative to this – just as the melodramatic plot of The Wings of the Dove is merely a vehicle for producing exquisitely complex states of moral consciousness.
Marcher feels ‘the growth of a dread of losing her by some catastrophe – some catastrophe that yet wouldn’t at all be the catastrophe’ (93). There is a piquant authorial intervention at this point (italicized): ‘It was characteristic of the inner detachment he had hitherto so successfully cultivated and to which our whole account of him is a reference, it was characteristic that his complications, such as they were, had never yet seemed so as at this crisis to thicken about him, even to the point of making him ask himself if he were…within the immediate jurisdiction, of the thing that waited’ (93). Note that James does not indicate a moral judgement on the ‘inner detachment,’ or if he does, it belongs to a relatively superficial dimension of the tale. When May’s health fails, Marcher interprets the situation in function of his own concerns ‘as the direct menace for himself of personal privation,’ but, he compliments himself, ‘what was still first in his mind was the loss she herself might suffer. “What if she should have to die before knowing, before seeing – ?”… the possibility was what most made him sorry for her’ (94). Marcher’s obsession makes him almost monstrous in this grimly comic passage; he even has a touch of the heartlessness of the ‘Aspern Papers’ narrator as he contemplates the death of Miss Juliana.
The tread of time is felt: ‘She looked older because inevitably, after so many years, she was old, or almost; which was of course true in still greater measure of her companion. If she was old, or almost, John Marcher assuredly was’ (95). Time has been slipping way silently throughout the tale – and the notations of its passage, like those in L’Éducation sentimentale, have a portentous bearing as we realize that these characters are letting their very lives slip away unlived. But note again the touch of humour in such a sentence as the last one quoted. Facing of a sudden the marks of aging, illness, death, Marcher comes close to deciphering the riddle of the beast: ‘What did everything mean… unless that, at this time of day, it was simply, it was overwhelmingly too late?’ (96).
Chapter IV begins with a threatening reference to ‘spring,’ subliminally suggesting the spring of the beast, and indeed by the end of the chapter it has sprung. May appears ‘in that long fresh light of waning April days which affects us often with a sadness sharper than the greyest hours of autumn’ (98). The elegiac mood gathers even more thickly as the story heads to its cemetery close. The sickly May is ‘the picture of a serene and exquisite but impenetrable sphinx’ (98). The imagery surrounding her is ‘rebarbatively asexual.’ ‘May Bartram, in withdrawing into the secret of her passion, becomes less of the sympathetic watcher-with-Marcher and more of the dispassionate watcher-of-Marcher. The sphinx, we remember, strangled those who could not guess her riddle’ (Heyns, 116-17).
May makes a last appeal to Marcher:
She waited once again, always with her cold sweet eyes on him. ‘It’s never too late.’ She had, with her gliding step, diminished the distance between them, and she stood nearer to him, close to him, a minute, as if still charged with the unspoken… 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… 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, none the less, was that what he had expected failed to come to him. Something else took place instead, which seemed to consist at first in the mere closing of her eyes. She gave way at the same instant to a slow fine shudder, and though he remained staring – though he stared in fact but the harder – turned off and regained her chair. It was the end of what she had been intending, but it left him thinking only of that. (105-6)
In this paragraph, in which nothing happens, the beast has sprung. At chapter’s end we read: ‘“What then has happened?”… he waited for her answer. “What was to,” she said’ (107). Teased once again, we reread the chapter, scanning it anxiously in search of the moment when ‘what was to happen’ took place – the moment at which Marcher failed to rise to the occasion and declare his love for May. The happening is in fact a non-happening, and Marcher is not even aware of its having happened. The readers who ask themselves, ‘Have I missed something?’ become mirror-images of Marcher, who later looks back on his own life, seeking to discern its passages of crucial significance. Exploiting a technique perfected in The Turn of the Screw, the later James keeps his reader constantly asking, ‘What is going on?’ Only by the most alert attention can we keep abreast with the puzzlement of the characters, and if we presume to see beyond that puzzlement – to decipher the Governess as a common-or-garden neurotic or Marcher as just a pompous egotist – then James has prepared our come-uppance as his text reads and dismantles our own presumption. If we end these stories feeling smugly superior to their protagonists, we have not really read them at all.
When May dies, Marcher wonders if this is ‘what he had figured as the Beast in the Jungle.’ ‘It wasn’t a thing of a monstrous order; not a fate rare and distinguished; not a stroke of fortune that overwhelmed and immortalised; it had only the stamp of the common doom. But poor Marcher at this hour judged the common doom sufficient’ (108-9). ‘Sufficient’ here probably means ‘sufficiently crushing’ rather than ‘sufficiently distinguished.’ But James has prepared for him an uncommon doom that, the tale assures us if the teller doesn’t, will indeed be distinguished. In their last encounter, where she speaks to him in sibylline tones from ‘the other side’ (112) of their long wait for what has now occurred, she assures him that ‘It has come’ and that ‘It has touched you,… It has done its office. It has made you all its own’ (110). He objects, ‘Nothing, for me, is past; nothing will pass till I pass myself… how can the thing I’ve never felt at all be the thing I was marked out to feel?’ Her reply: ‘You were to suffer your fate. That was not necessarily to know it’ (113). In fact, however, as if an extra chapter were added to The Turn of the Screw in which the Governess would fully realize her madness, Marcher is to know his fate. ‘The other side’ is an evocative phrase, suggestive of the world of writing, where in deep solitude one contemplates life from the other side, as if across a pane of unbreakable glass. The author’s voice, sibylline like May’s, comes from that other side.
‘They had parted for ever in that strange talk; access to her chamber of pain, rigidly guarded, was almost wholly forbidden him’ (114). He is appalled at how little his relationship with May counts for in others’ eyes. ‘He seemed to feel himself unattended – and for a reason he couldn’t seize – by the distinction, the dignity, the propriety, if nothing else, of the man markedly bereaved’ (115). The ‘reason he couldn’t seize’ is his failure to be for May what he could have been – or perhaps more deeply it is that he lives at an oblique angle to real existence, an angle imposed by his vivid imaginative consciousness. At the funeral, Marcher is once again ‘lost in the crowd’ – a nobody. His identity as May’s companion has flourished in the narcissistic realm of the Imaginary, but has no purchase in the social Symbolic order. His prized secret is an agalma he clings to as an assurance that he is somebody. Agalma is the Greek word for ornament. For Lacan it is the inestimable object of desire with which a subject adorns itself – as Marcher adorns himself with the secret that distinguishes him. For Lacan the agalma is the treasure sought in analysis, the unconscious truth we wish to know – and this, again, is confirmed in Marcher’s case. Within the psychoanalytical transference one has the patient as speaking subject and the analyst as the Other, silent, listening, judging – which is May’s role. The agalma is the agent of the transference relationship. This again matches the Marcher-May relationship so closely that one wonders if Lacan has read James’s tale! As a Dublin website explains: ‘The promise of this beloved object supports the client through the analysis. Seeking to discover this treasure, the client avows his or her desire, as manifested in the discourse’ (www.agalma.com; see Lacan, 163-221).
Marcher’s self-image as the bearer of a unique distinction is constructed in the Imaginary in the absence of any integration into the Symbolic, that is, of any full social or familial relationship. The image is destined to be punctured by the Real, which is fitly figured as a Beast, since it comes from outside the system of his representations, a brutal tear in their fabric. As a further prop for his identity, May’s sympathetic ear was dragooned into his Imaginary economy; she served as a mirror for his narcissism; their relationship, on his side at least, never transcended the Imaginary, so that now, at her funeral, it has no standing in the Symbolic order represented by her family; it is as if neither it nor he himself have any real existence. Had he taken responsibility for May, through marriage for example, he would have boldly established a place for himself in the Symbolic order, but his entire lifestyle is predicated on the subtle but systematic avoidance of such heavy demands. Yet again, we are prompted to say with Bersani (210): ‘James, however, seems nearly as unsatisfied as I am with this reading.’ The ‘solution’ to Marcher’s problem is not a real possibility in this story; his ‘fate’ is far too powerful to be thwarted thus; his castle of the Imaginary is valorized by the mere fact that all alternatives to it are deferred to an unbridgeable distance from beginning to end.
Marcher at this stage believes that ‘what was to happen had so absolutely and finally happened that he was as little able to know a fear for his future as to know a hope; so absent in short was any question of anything still to come’ (117). The jungle has been cleared, and he marches on in Stoic solitude and disillusionment, clinging to the memory of May as the only distinguished thing in his past, the future no longer holding a promise of distinction. But he is not walking toward any future; ‘as his name suggests, Marcher is stuck in a lockstep of motion without development’ (Wexler, 4). He wants, however, to know what it is that has happened to him, in that past; to be fully aware of what his fate has been: ‘The lost stuff of consciousness became thus for him as a strayed or stolen child to an unappeasable father; he hunted it up and down very much as if he were knocking at doors and enquiring of the police’ (117-18). In search of his own weak and flickering identity, he inquires at the site that holds it – the silent grave of his confidante – ‘drawing his breath, while he waited, as if some sense would in pity of him rise from the stones. He kneeled on the stones, however, in vain; they kept what they concealed’ (118).
‘He stayed away, after this, for a year; he visited the depths of Asia, spending himself on scenes of romantic interest, of superlative sanctity; but what was present to him everywhere was that for a man who had known what he had known the world was vulgar and vain’ (119). This passage recalls Frédéric Moreau’s travels towards the end of L’Éducation sentimentale (Part III, chapter 6). What Flaubert’s protagonist has ‘known’ is an unfulfilled love for Madame Arnoux, apart from which the universe has little to offer: just ‘the boredom of steamboats,’ ‘the bitterness of interrupted sympathies’ and other ‘loves’ that have no savour for him.
‘There were hours when, before the temples of gods and the sepulchres of kings, his spirit turned for nobleness of association to the barely discriminated slab in the London suburb. That had become for him, and more intensely with time and distance, his one witness of a past glory’ (119). On returning, he visits her grave ‘to renew the wonder by getting back, as he might put it, into his own presence… he had been separated so long from the part of himself that alone he now valued’ (120). He clings to May as the only one who knows his secret, knows it better than he does, and thus as the guardian of his identity. ‘It was as if, being nothing anywhere else for any one, nothing even for himself, he were just everything here’ (121). Regularly visiting the tomb, he seems to wander with ‘a companion who was, in the most extraordinary manner, his other, his younger self’ and ‘round and round a third presence – not wandering she, but stationary, still, whose eyes, turning with his revolution, never ceased to follow him’ (121). In death, May is more sibylline, than ever. The Egyptian sights that Marcher has seen on his travels project onto her tomb the aura of a Sphinx. His serene, ironic judge during her life, she continues to judge him from the grave.
On the final autumn day, he rests on her grave ‘as if some spring in him, some spell vouchsafed, had suddenly been broken for ever’ (123). Again James puns on the word ‘spring’ – that failure of the beast to spring has robbed Marcher’s life of its meaning. Then he is startled by the face of the fellow-mourner that shows ‘the image of scarred passion,’ making him wonder ‘what wound it expressed, what injury not to be healed. What had the man had, to make him by the loss of it so bleed and yet live?’ (124). And now the doom of knowledge falls on Marcher, as he registers the deep mistake of his life: ‘No passion had ever touched him, for this was what passion meant; he had survived and maundered and pined, but where had been his deep ravage?’ Soon, ‘What he presently stood there gazing at was the sounded void of his life… She was what he had missed. This was the awful thought, the answer to all the past, the vision at the dread clearness of which he turned as cold as the stone beneath him… The fate he had been marked for he had met with a vengeance… he had been the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened’ (125).
This last grandiose sentence has stuck in many readers’ memories; it is cited by François Truffaut in his film La Chambre verte, based chiefly on ‘The Altar of the Dead.’ It is a ‘typically novellistic statement’ (Goyet, 36), taking the development of the donnée to its paroxystic climax. It is a sentence that could not occur in a novel. In the Preface, James, seemingly exasperated by the imperceptiveness of his readers, tells his story again, in a suggestive resumé: ‘My picture leaves him [Marcher] overwhelmed – at last he has understood; though in thus disengaging the theme for the reader’s benefit I seem to acknowledge that this more detached witness [the reader] may not successfully have done so’ (p. xi). He drops a hint of identification with Marcher: ‘as I march’ (p. ix). He rewrites as follows the sentence quoted above: ‘He has indeed been marked and indeed suffered his fortune – which is precisely to have been the man in the world to whom nothing whatever was to happen’ (xi). He omits the emphasis of ‘the man of his time, the man,’ whereby Marcher claims for himself a unique status, and indeed makes of himself an iconic figure for his generation. Marcher’s narcissism has survived intact the assault of the Real; he is rapidly reconstituting his thorough failure as a mark of distinction and so of paradoxical success.
James himself could have lodged a claim like Marcher’s, and we recall him today as the man of his time who made the most art out of the least life. Flaubert, novelist of futility, can write of passion and love with an authority that eluded James; Mallarmé, poet of blanks and emptiness, was a family man, stricken by the loss of his son, Anatole. But James, whose work is dismissed by its detractors as ‘much ado about nothing,’ can be seen as circling about a centre of pure absence, which cannot even be called loss. His writing in its very extremism is thus the representative embodiment of this fascinating moment in literature, the moment of decadence, subtle psychological analysis, the cult of style, symbolisme, fin-de-siècle, l’art pour l’art, poised at the threshold of modernism. Not the sprawl of naturalism, but the reduction of fiction to its pure essence, would be the key literary accomplishment of the time, a key to be handed on to the modernist generation of Proust, Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
Marcher, in this final scene, is the bearer of an ‘election’ in the religious sense, albeit a purely negative one. ‘That was the rare stroke – that was his visitation’ (125). The word ‘visitation’ – used in the religious sense – recalls the ‘vastation’ which James’s father underwent in the spring of 1844. A visitation could be a divine punishment, or the haunting of a ghost, or a theophany conferring on its recipient an exalted vocation. There are many resemblances between Marcher’s experience and that recounted by Henry James, Sr.:
It seemed to him that there was an invisible shape squatting in the room, ‘raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life.’ … ‘The thing had not lasted ten seconds before I felt myself a wreck; that is, reduced from a state of firm, vigorous, joyful manhood to one of almost helpless infancy.’ Wanting to run like a child to the foot of the stairs and shout as if calling for his mother, or to the roadside to ‘appeal to the public to protect me,’ he did neither. He remained motionless, ‘beat upon by an ever-growing tempest of doubt, anxiety and despair,’ until he was able to struggle to his feet and confide the ‘sudden burden of inmost, implacable unrest’ to his wife. (Edel, 7)
James also locates the spring of the beast in the spring – in the April when May realizes it has sprung. The word ‘thing’ is used in James’s tale with the same overtone as in his father’s reminiscence. The close of ‘The Jolly Corner’ is another passage in which his father’s terrifying experience leaves a mark. Spencer Brydon meets the spectral apparition at the foot of the stairs and awakes from his faint in the maternal lap of Alice Staverton (her name that of James’s much-mourned sister) – a fairy-tale ending that again masks the real brunt of the tale, located in the deep plunge into extremes of suppositious consciousness in its extraordinary middle chapter.
A certain Mrs Chichester told Henry James, Sr. that he was undergoing what Swedenborg called a vastation, ‘one stage in the regenerative process of man,’ leading to ‘a new birth’ (Edel, 8). Whether such prospects lie open to Marcher is more than doubtful. He wanted to die but a moment ago, but now seems to have found an identity, and perhaps a reason for living. To savour the consciousness of his unique destiny is now the chief matter that life holds in store for him. But this is a perfect formula for receding again into a cocoon of egotistic grandiosity. In any case, James so arranges it that it is not with Marcher’s future that the tale ends, but with the moment of the Beast’s leap:
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; whereas he had never thought of her (ah how it hugely glared at him!) but in the chill of his egotism and the light of her use… The Beast had lurked indeed, and the Beast, at its hour, had sprung; it had sprung in that twilight of the cold April when, pale, ill, wasted, but all beautiful, and perhaps even then recoverable, she had risen from her chair to stand before him and let him imaginably guess. It had sprung as he didn’t guess; it had sprung as she hopelessly turned from him… This horror of waking – this was knowledge, knowledge under the breath of which the very tears in his eyes seemed to freeze. Through them, none the less, he tried to fix it and hold it; he kept it there before him so that he might feel the pain. That at least, belated and bitter, had something of the taste of life… He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened – it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb. (126-7)
The pain of knowledge is so great that he takes refuge in the protective presence of the dead May. He will identify with the dead sibyl and the silent gravestone more and more, protecting himself from the Real by a further investment in the narcissistic dyad he formed with the dead woman. He throws himself on her tomb as on his mother’s breast. Note that hallucination, which Lacan calls the return in the Real of what is foreclosed or repressed in the Symbolic, is a psychotic symptom. Marcher’s very sanity is threatened, much as James’s father’s was by his ‘vastation.’ By living narcissistically in the Imaginary he has made himself an unreal being, sacrificing mature identity, and now reality takes its revenge, not in the form of ascribing to him roles and responsibility, but in the raw nakedness of the Real – bestially, like an upsurge of the Freudian Id. James speaks of ‘the madness of art’ in ‘The Middle Years’ and one can see his experiments as leading to the brink of insanity; they certainly break down the normal bounds of daylight reason. Tales of the Supernatural such as ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ ‘The Jolly Corner,’ or The Sense of the Past are a vehicle for the most exquisite effects here, but the hyper-reflexivity of the consciousnesses in The Golden Bowl is already a massive assault on the limits of realism, and if we met the Maggie Verver of Part II of that novel in real life we should say she was mad.
It is hard to think of a Jamesian tale or novel in which the close articulates so fully and clearly what the story has been about, clearing up all the mysteries left hanging in the air up to that point. What had seemed rarefied superstition and vague speculation in the colloquies of Marcher and May now leaps into substantial reality with nothing at all vague about it. The obsessed narrators of ‘The Aspern Papers’ and The Sacred Fount (which is more a novella than a novel), having failed in their quest, end up with only a vague suspicion that they suffer a deeper loss, a lack of humanity. But here the account is drawn up with exactness and the terms of Marcher’s loss are spelt out to the last item. Heyns (111) notes that May’s story, which has been told in the interstices of Marcher’s, now also becomes clear; the two stories come together as Marcher recognizes the passion of May and its vindication: ‘She had lived.’ But again, this final clarity will strike the suspicious reader as deceptive, even if James, as in the case of ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ may appear to confirm it in his Preface. It is not Marcher’s loss but his registration of loss that makes the story, and makes such a good story that the loss itself seems a reasonable price to pay for it. James’s entire oeuvre is written out of a consciousness of lack, distance, loss – his unique, distinguished angle of vision. His frantic efforts, as a realist novelist (The Princess Casamassima, The Tragic Muse) and as a commercial playwright, to find another relation to literary art fell flat as they were doomed to, and sent him back to his laboratory of consciousness. He may, like Marcher, have cried out against his fate, but at a deeper level he embraced it proudly, as Marcher for all his woe may also be doing.
II: The Progeny: Joyce and Sillitoe
Like other dense Jamesian texts, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ cries out for an intertextual reading. It is a distillation of a current running through nineteenth century literature since the Romantics. James says in the Preface that he can recollect no source for it in real life: ‘As to the incidental determinant… I remount the stream of time, all enquiringly, but to come back empty-handed’ (ix). The topic formed itself as if spontaneously, embodying a pattern drawn from the depths of his experience and of his reading.
There is a disturbing tale of the fantastic by Ludwig Tieck, ‘Der blonde Eckbert’ (1797), in which the hero awakes to the nightmare realization that he has never been connected with any other human being. Missed connections, the chagrin of loving ‘too late,’ as in Eugene Onegin, are almost a romantic cliché. In a sedulously realistic mode the author of L’Éducation sentimentale develops the cliché to an extreme pitch and hangs on it the history of his times. No doubt many predecessor texts for James’s tale remain to be discovered, and beyond them a wide literature preoccupied with that theme. Tintner finds a trace of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, in which an episode in the cemetery of Cecilia ‘cannot but remind us in mood and details of the cemetery in “The Beast in the Jungle”’ (1987:162). The entire world of fin-de-siècle aestheticism toys with the fate of never having lived – ‘As for living, our servants will do that for us’ (Villiers de l’Isle-Adam) – and of a disconnect between the Imaginary and the Symbolic: Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll, Wilde’s Dorian Gray pay only lip-service to the Symbolic order while they build up the cocoon of the Imaginary; which is then punctured by the leap of a Beast – the monstrous Mr Hyde or the horrible old man in Dorian’s picture – the hallucinatory return of the repressed. Of course James’s own oeuvre contains many precursor texts on the ‘unlived life,’ a gallery of detached aesthetes such as Winterbourne in ‘Daisy Miller,’ Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady, Adam Verver in The Golden Bowl, who may be cushioned from life and love by their wealth as well; Strether in The Ambassadors has missed out on love perhaps for similar reasons, and the numerous writers or critics in the novellas testify that James’ stupendous literary existence could appear as a cold withdrawal from life.
Just as May’s love for Marcher ‘enables the deathlike atmosphere surrounding him to wither her and kill her,’ as James intimates by ‘the icons of death he has thrust into the story’ (Pompeii, the tombs of the pharaohs, etc.), so subtler forms of necrosis inflicted by unloving men are chronicled in texts influenced by the tale, such as A. R. Gurney’s play, Later Life: ‘Gurney’s living-dead Austin is a kind of zombie created by his prep school, his squash accomplishments, his perfectionism within the standards of his class, and his failure to comprehend how living is different from not living’ (Tintner 1998:256).
Saul Bellow’s classy novella, The Actual, offers an almost insouciant inversion of James’s story. Harry Trellman returns to his native Chicago, recovers his roots, an ‘actual’ life, and finally proposes to his lifelong ‘love object’ Amy Wustrin in a cemetery. Obstacles of space and time are serenely overcome: ‘“Love objects,” as psychiatry has named them, are not frequently come by or easily put aside. “Distance” is really a formality. The mind takes no notice of it’ (Bellow, 4). Though Harry, as Michiko Kakutani noted in a New York Times review, ‘has spent his entire life waiting and withholding’ (quoted Tintner 1998:431), a lucky turn of events brings his waiting to an end, conferring the grace to withhold no longer. Bellow consciously baptizes his work ‘a novella,’ pitching it as a response to one of the most famous American novellas. This is an effective intervention in literary history, reorienting the Jamesian questions, and cashing in on May Bartram’s assurance to Marcher: ‘It’s never too late.’
The first literary offspring of “The Beast in the Jungle’ appears to be ‘A Painful Case,’ a relatively crude and immature product of James Joyce’s pen, written in 1905 less than two years after the publication of James’s story. The following Lacanian description of its protagonist James Duffy (named after Henry James, or after James Joyce?) could equally apply to John Marcher:
Duffy’s sense of himself, his reality, engages in a good deal of fantasy. Casual contact with others must be strictly monitored because, more than likely, others will defy, quite inadvertently perhaps, Duffy’s ideal image of himself. Only people who consciously devote themselves to divining what his ideal image is, in order to better support it, will win any sort of allegiance from Duffy. This, of course, is precisely what Mrs Sinico does… Duffy’s detailed imaginary fantasies about his own integrity have papered over, with moi fixations and ‘other’ messages, the primordial lack-in-being that cannot be symbolized (and, thus, remains unrepresented in the Real). (Leonard, 212)
Mrs Sinico is the only person who actually speaks, in straightforward dialogue, in this story, and her words reveal a warm and sympathetic character: ‘—What a pity there is such a poor house to-night! It’s so hard on people to have to sing to empty benches’ (Joyce, 105). She will become for Duffy a perfectly satisfying audience of one. She never assumes May’s position of insight and control, but she does try to draw Duffy out of his narcissistic cocoon: ‘She asked him why he did not write out his thoughts. For what, he asked her, with careful scorn. To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds? To submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class...?’ (107). Unlike Marcher, Duffy is a writer, but a totally sterile one. The adjective ‘careful’ well captures the brittle defensiveness of a man who shuns any action – writing, competing, submitting himself to criticism – that would place him in the objective Symbolic order in interaction with others.
Mr Duffy’s self-protective order, routine and dry irony are enacted in the grim and barren style as well; yet they also allow chinks, such as the apple left to rot in his desk, or the translation of Michael Kramer, with its theme of an aspiring artist who is a social outcast and commits suicide, or most crucially, his love of music (see Hyman, 113). Joyce joked with his brother Stanislaus about the story, treating it as a farce that only sentimental readers would take at face value. But this mockery of the story, which he saw as the second worst in Dubliners, might serve to mask its sources if the protagonist is modelled on Stanislaus, as is often suggested, or on Joyce himself (who also translated Michael Kramer, and who, as the future author of Finnegans Wake, had, like James, an immense capacity to bury himself in the Imaginary cocoon of a self-referential art).
‘“Neither he nor she had had any such adventure before”. This is lady-like, cake-frosting diction’, which ‘seems to emanate from her’ (Hyman, 114). Mrs Sinico is thus inhibited in her own way, as may perhaps also be said of May Bartram. ‘She became his confessor’ gives an Irish Catholic twist to the role of confidante. ‘There is intimacy combined with impersonality. The confessional is a formal, ritualized means of “opening oneself to the full” and still feeling safe’ (Hyman, 115).
Mr Duffy’s imaginary world is punctured by the Real when ‘Mrs Sinico caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek’ (107). He breaks off their relationship in a scene reminiscent of James`s tale: ‘It was cold autumn weather but in spite of the cold they wandered up and down the roads of the Park for nearly three hours. They agreed to break off their intercourse: every bond, he said, is a bond to sorrow’ (108). He cannot take the threat she represents to him. An odd sentence he writes in his notebook combines the topics of homosexual panic and dread of heterosexual engagement: ‘Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse’ (108). Joyce borrowed these dismal apophthegms from his brother, so they are veritable objets trouvés reflecting the sexual preoccupations of lower middle-class Dublin intellectuals at the time.
The most brilliant, and the most Joycean, part of the story is the newspaper report in which Duffy reads of Mrs Sinico’s death. It is an invasion of the Real that we experience along with the silent reader. The deadpan parody borders on farce: ‘Police Sergeant Croly deposed that when he arrived he found the deceased lying on the platform apparently dead’ (110) – note the sly absurdity of ‘the deceased… apparently dead.’ Duffy first experiences this incursion of the Real as an insult to his palace of ideals: ‘The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred’ (111). He despatches her with Nietzschean arrogance: ‘Evidently she had been unfit to live’ (111). But this defensive reaction fails as the news reaches him at a deeper level: ‘The shock which had first attacked his stomach was now attacking his nerves’; ‘He began to feel ill at ease’ (112). His realization formulates itself in rather banal language: ‘Now that she was gone he understood how lonely her life must have been, sitting night after night alone in that room. His life would be lonely too until he, too, died, ceased to exist, became a memory – if anyone remembered him’ (112-13). Has the young Joyce strayed here from novella to novelette? Or is it Duffy, in his self-pity, who so strays? As he feels her ghostly presence in the Park Duffy asks himself: ‘Why had he withheld life from her? Why had he sentenced her to death? He felt his moral nature falling to pieces’ (113). But Mr Duffy is a man of impregnable defences, and he soon repels these attacks from the Real: ‘He began to doubt the reality of what memory told him… He could not feel her near him in the darkness… He listened again: perfectly silent. He felt that he was alone’ (114). ‘Mr Duffy restores the myth that he is a lone figure, a closed-circuit corpus of self-serving third-person sentences built upon the corpse of Mrs Sinico’ (Leonard, 227). James ended his tale in passionate convulsion; Joyce engineers a downbeat ending, a second death of Mrs Sinico. As in James, the only substantial passion in the tale is on the part of the woman, and it is revealed not in words but in a few stifled gestures and in its effect in hastening her death, and is revealed fully only from the grave. A problem with Joyce’s tale is that Mr Duffy is such an unsympathetic character; his pseudo-Nietzschean self-aggrandizement is that of a petty man, whereas James infuses into Marcher some true grandeur.
Echoes of both James’s and Joyce’s stories turn up in a surprising source, Alan Sillitoe’s story ‘The Fishing-boat Picture.’ James’ protagonists are upper middle class, Joyce’s lower middle class. Sillitoe transfers the Jamesian plot to a proletarian setting. Born in Nottingham in 1928, Sillitoe was one of a group of writers, sometimes loosely dubbed the Angry Young Men, who brought the experience of the working class and of the industrial North of England to the forefront of British fiction and drama in the 1950s. ‘The Fishing-boat Picture’ is from his collection The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, 1959 (film, dir. Tony Richardson, 1962), published a year after his first novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (film, dir. Karel Reisz, 1960). At first sight it seems a drab, unprepossessing naturalist narrative. The story is set in the years before, during and after World War II, a major landmark or caesura in twentieth-century British history; I do not know if as in the case of Flaubert the emptiness of the characters’ lives is supposed to reflect an emptiness in society at that time.
Sillitoe is a cleverer writer than he lets on. The opening sentences of the story already tell us a great deal about its protagonist:
I’ve been a postman for twenty-eight years. Take that first sentence: because it’s written in a simple way may make the fact of my having been a postman for so long seem important, but I realize that such a fact has no significance whatever. After all, it’s not my fault that it may seem as if it has to some people just because I wrote it down plain; I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way. (Sillitoe, 135)
The sophisticated author puts before us an unsophisticated narrator, who is a rather inarticulate man, and one detached from his own identity and existence which he is all too prone to see as having ‘no significance whatever.’ The narrator is self-conscious about his own writing, worries about the effect his opening plain sentence may produce. (This is also the author’s way of drawing the reader’s attention to the style of the story, more carefully poised and calculated than it seems.) The narrator is defensive – ‘after all, it’s not my fault’ – and sets up barriers of mute pride that contribute to his ill success in love. Sillitoe conveys a proletarian tone to the language by slight grammatical lapses: ‘because it’s written in a simple way may make the fact…’ and by quaint vocabulary, as in ‘mash-lad,’ ‘cheeky-daft’ and ‘arm-in-arm’ (not ‘arm in arm’) on the same page. The narrator emphasizes his incapacity for any but the plainest writing, yet Sillitoe is manipulating this writing so as to allow the reader to grasp the full subtlety of the character’s psychology.
The narrator unexpectedly stresses the importance of his marriage: ‘It’s also twenty-eight years since I got married. That statement is very important no matter how you write it or in what way you look at it’ (132). We shall see that this sentence reflects a realization that came to the narrator only at a late date. We surmise that all was not well in their marriage from the following sentence: ‘I had to marry her as soon as I got a job because I’d promised her I would, and she wasn’t the sort of person to let me forget it’ (135). Not, ‘I wanted to marry her because I loved her,’ but ‘I had to marry her, because I promised.’ We wonder if the narrator loved his wife at all, and we suspect that he is a weak, passive character with no will of his own.
There follows a rather comic seduction scene:
When my first pay night came I called for her and asked: ‘What about a walk up Snakey Wood?’… Because I’d forgotten about our arrangement I didn’t think it strange at all when she said: ‘Yes, all right.’ (135)
‘Snakey’ might suggest the snake in the Garden of Eden that tempted Eve, who in turn tempted Adam, in Genesis 3; a reference to Cherry Orchard might also recall Eden. A Google search brought up Cherry Orchard Mount, Nottingham, but no Snakey Wood; it may be a fictional name chosen for its resonance with the Genesis story. The girl’s compliance with the narrator’s request does not strike him as ‘strange’ – presumably it is the kind of invitation she usually would not accept, if Snakey Wood is known as a lovers’ courting spot, so that her ready acceptance now would have struck him as ‘strange’ if he were more suspicious. Then on their happy walk she takes the initiative:
‘Do you want to go into the wood?’
What a thing to ask! I laughed: ‘You know I do.
We walked on, and a minute later she said: ‘Yes, I do; but you know what we’re to do now you’ve got a steady job, don’t you?’
I wondered what it was all about. Yet I knew right enough. ‘Get married,’ I admitted, adding on second thoughts: ‘I don’t have much of a wage to be wed on, you know.’
‘It’s enough, as far as I’m concerned,’ she answered.
And that was that. She gave me the best kiss I’d ever had, and then we went into the wood. (135-6)
The girl is determined and somewhat manipulative – a characterization that may seem rather at variance with her development in the course of the story, where she becomes a passive, drifting character. Her sexual appeal here is subordinated to her firm insistence on what the narrator has to do. He sheepishly ‘admits,’ like a child coaxed by his mother, what his duty is. His ‘second thoughts’ and his effort to make low wages a pretext for resistance are quickly overruled. ‘And that was that’ has a tone of fatality, as if a trap has shut on him.
The atmosphere of this love-making does not encourage optimism about the prospects of this marriage, and indeed, after the first of the six blank spaces marking the divisions of the story, we read:
She was never happy about our life together, right from the start. And neither was I, because it didn’t take her long to begin telling me that all her friends – her family most of all – said time and time again that our marriage wouldn’t last five minutes. (136)
The narrator takes his mediocre marriage lightly: ‘The bare fact of my getting married meant only that I changed one house and one mother for another house and a different mother. It was as simple as that.’ Clearly this young man is an unawakened, somnambulistic personality, a child who has not grown up. Infantilism is confirmed by his reference to his wife as ‘a different mother’ and in what he says about handing over his wage packet and getting ‘five shillings back for tobacco and a visit to the pictures.’ The marriage lasts for six years: ‘she left me when I was thirty, and when she was thirty-four’ (136). Her seniority chimes with her initiative in their courtship and her maternal role in their marriage. (We calculate that he is narrating his story at the age of fifty-two.) The couple’s violent quarrels made it seem ‘as if we’d done nothing but row and suffer like this from the moment we set eyes on each other.’ But this is corrected retrospectively: ‘The truth was, as I see it now – and even saw it sometimes then – that a lot of our time was bloody enjoyable’ (136). ‘Bloody enjoyable’ is conventional diction, suggesting that even in mature retrospect the narrator’s insight and responses remain inadequate.
The intertextual references to James begin with the narrator’s name, Harry, first uttered as his wife’s voice breaks in on him as he is sunk in a book. His reading represents his detachment from her and from reality. The Imaginary has claimed him – figured by the ‘hot possessive world of India’ (recalling James’s jungle).
My head was in a book, and Kathy just sat there.
Suddenly she said: ‘I do love you, Harry.’ I didn’t hear the words for some time, as is often the case when you’re reading a book. Then: ‘Harry, look at me.’
My face came up, smiled, and went down again to my reading. Maybe I was in the wrong, and should have said something, but the book was too good.
‘I’m sure all that reading’s bad for your eyes,’ she commented, prising me again from the hot possessive world of India. (136-7)
‘Bad for your eyes’ following on ‘look at me’ spells the clear message that he does not even see her, but Harry does not pick this up, or reacts in denial: ‘"It ain’t,” I denied, not looking up’ (137). Their quarrel culminates with her screaming, ‘You booky bastard… nowt but books, books, books, you bleddy dead-‘ead’ (137) as she throws his book in the fire.
When Kathy leaves him for a housepainter, the narrator is cool about it: ‘I didn’t think to break my heart’ (137), though admitting that ‘even now it’s no used trying to tell myself that I wasn’t disturbed by this change in my life… there was something different about the house… And something altered inside me as well… but then the endless evenings of summer came and I was happy almost against my will… The world was moving and, I felt, so was I’ (138). But is he moving, or just marking time? His life becomes a mundane routine: ‘I boiled an egg for breakfast (fried with bacon on Sundays),’ and he settles for a drab solitude: ‘As things went, it wasn’t a bad life. It might have been a bit lonely, but at least it was peaceful, and it got as I didn’t mind it, one way or the other’ (138). Every clause in these sentences exquisitely droops with depression and a tired inability to live, notably the superfluous ‘as things went’ and ‘one way or the other.’ (‘Tired? You’re allus tired… Tired Tim!,’ Kathy had said .)
Ten years later, Harry has spent an irritating day at work, ‘being handed back letters all along the line, hearing that people had left and that no one had any idea where they’d moved to’ (139) – all reflecting the blanks in his own life. His role in the Symbolic order of the work-world is as bereft of significance as Marcher’s. He is about to ‘carry on reading a book about Brazil’ (139) – again the hot possessive jungle or rain-forest of the Imaginary – when Kathy reappears. Like Marcher, shocked to see that May has aged, Harry is disturbed that Kathy has so changed that he does not recognize her immediately: ‘that split second in between is like a kick in the stomach’ (139). With his usual maddening coolness, he says: ‘I was neither glad nor unhappy to see her, but maybe that’s what shock does, because I was surprised, that I will say. Not that I never expected to see her again, but you know how it is. I’d just forgotten her somehow’ (139). These phrases satirize working-class inarticulacy based on canny avoidance of emotional exposure: ‘that I will say,’ ‘you know how it is,’ ‘somehow.’
The couple make uneasy conversation, amid which Kathy keeps looking at the picture of a fishing boat on the wall. The movements of this object become a mute substitute for what the couple are unable to say to one another. A wedding present from Kathy’s brother, the remnant of a set of three – ‘the last of the fleet’ as the narrator repeats with irritating jokiness –, it is a shard she wants to save from the wreck of her marriage, or of her entire past: ‘she didn’t look as though she had much of a life’ (141). As with Marcher and May, could it be that Harry’s detachment is what has robbed her of life? She reproaches him:
She met my eyes for the first time: ‘You was never very excitable, was you, Harry?’
‘No,’ I replied truthfully, ‘not all that much.’
‘You should have been,’ she said, though in an empty sort of way, ‘then we might have hit it off a bit better.’
‘Too late now,’ I put in. (141)
She asks him to give her the picture, ‘as though she’d never wanted anything so much in her life’ (142). As they silently look on the picture together, Kathy may be thought to offer her love to Harry again, as May did to Marcher, with equal failure; he wraps the picture in a businesslike way, impatient with her lingering. She says, ‘You’re very good to me, Harry’ (143), to which he replies in a bluff way: ‘Good! I like that. What does a picture more or less in the house matter?’ (143). After this unsatisfactory encounter, haunted by something unspoken, ‘it didn’t take me long to get back to my book’ (144).
A few days later he sees the fishing-boat picture in a pawnshop, set amid emblems of failing life and warmth: ‘ancient spirit-levels, bladeless planes, rusty hammers, trowels, and a violin case with the strap broken’ (144). He buys the picture back, and deduces that Kathy sold it to buy drink. Kathy visits him regularly and he gives her money, but takes no initiative to reclaim her: ‘I had an idea she might want to live in my house again seeing she’d lost her job. If she wanted to she could. And she wouldn’t be afraid to ask, even now. But I wasn’t going to mention it first’ (145-6). He registers regret at this passivity: ‘Maybe that was my mistake, though I’ll never know’ (145). Note the theme of knowledge, so prominent in the James story. Her only comment on the picture, on her second visit, is: ‘That’s a nice picture you’ve got up there. I always liked it a lot’; when he replies with their stale joke about ‘the last of the fleet,’ she says: ‘That’s why I like it,’ leaving him ‘mystified’ (146). Her attachment to the picture expresses no doubt her desire to reanimate their marriage. But what significance attaches to her pawning it? Like him, she oscillates indecisively between attachment and indifference, and the movements of the picture, representing this, lead to her death.
Her visits continue through the war years, and they talk, but ‘never anything important’ (146), a passive and inarticulate pair letting life slip by. ‘In a quiet off-handed sort of way we got to enjoy ourselves and looked forward to seeing each other again, and maybe they were the best times we ever had together in our lives. They certainly helped us through the long monotonous dead evenings of the war’ (147). The last phrase suggests a parallel between the couple’s paralysis and that of the society. ‘The best times’ is again conventional diction, blotting out the deeper possibilities of their relationship. The money he gives her increases ‘finally, just before she died, to four bob’ (147). Her death is first mentioned thus in drab undertone. Complacently, the narrator continues, ‘It was a pleasure to be able to help her. Besides, I told myself, she had no one else’ (147) – again fobbing himself off with conventional ideas and diction. During those visits she often admires the fishing-boat picture, saying he should never part with it, and then in the next breath hinting he should give it to her. He surmises that she wants it ‘only to have the pleasure of pawning it, to have someone else buy it so that it wouldn’t belong to either of us any more’ (147). Eventually, after six years, he gives it to her, and again sees it in the pawnshop window. Kathy is run down by a lorry, ‘knocked all to bits’; ‘the doctor told me she’d not been quite sober’ (148) – an echo here of Mrs Sinico’s demise in ‘A Painful Case.’ ‘Among the things of hers they showed me was the fishing-boat picture, but it was so broken and smeared with blood that I hardly recognized it. I burned it in the roaring flames of the firegrate late that night’ (148). End of the marriage.
Her family blame him for Kathy’s accident – perhaps because it was he who let her go downhill by funding her drinking habit and offering her no domestic security. ‘I stood at the graveside thinking I was alone, hoping I would end up crying my eyes out. No such luck’ (148). Compare the last words of Joyce’s story: ‘He was alone’. The emotional cramp here is very similar to Mr Duffy’s feelings, which do not amount to grief. Then we have a scene surely modeled on James:
Holding my head up suddenly I noticed a man I hadn’t seen before. It was a sunny afternoon of winter, but bitter cold… Now there was this stranger. Tears were running down his cheeks, a man in his middle fifties wearing a good suit… I felt no need to ask who he was… The neighbours… told me he and Kathy had been living together for the last six years. Would you believe it? I only wish he’d made her happier than she’d been. (148)
Like Marcher recognizing that May had had a life while he hadn’t, Harry now sees he was blind to Kathy’s story, which, like May’s, comes into perspective only after her death. Harry begins to realize that he should never have let Kathy go.
Something told me I’d been daft and dead to do it, and as my rotten luck would have it it was the word dead more than daft that stuck in my mind, and still sticks there like the spinebone of a cod or conger eel, driving me potty sometimes when I lay of a night in bed thinking… And yet at the worst minutes of my midnight emptiness I’d think less of myself and more of Kathy, see her as suffering in a far rottener way than ever I’d done, and it would come to me – though working only as long as an aspirin pitted against an incurable headache – that the object of my having been alive was that in some small way I’d helped Kathy through her life. (149).
Like Marcher and Duffy, Harry ends up wondering, and we are left wondering if he is not himself the agent of the death of the heroine; his escape, like theirs, from the grim fate that now holds him would have been to have loved her. A death-dealing experience of knowledge, like Marcher’s, leaves him without any of Marcher’s sense of enjoying at least the distinction of consciousness:
I was born dead, I keep telling myself. Everybody’s dead, I answer. So they are, I maintain, but then most of them never know it like I’m beginning to do, and it’s a bloody shame that it has come to me at last when I could least do with it, and when it’s too bloody late to get anything but bad from it. (149)
For the first time in the story he claims to have loved Kathy – though one may wonder if this is at last partly retrojection – compare ‘I see it now’ (136) – and if it is only posthumously that he can imagine he loved her. Like Marcher, the idea that he loved her assures him that there has been some happening, some meaning, in his empty past.
If you loved her … (of course I bloody-well did) … then you both did the only thing possible if it was to be remembered as love. Now didn’t you?... Yes, I cry, but neither of us did anything about it, and that’s the trouble. (149)
The unorthodox punctuation of the parenthesis – a thought breaking in on his brooding – suggests either a sudden stark realization that he loved her, or a determined affirmation that he did, despite not having expressed it. It is a love that might have been, his one chance of coming alive emotionally, and this is what leaves him unconsolable.
Kathy’s story, like May’s and Mrs Sinico’s, is told obliquely, in the interstices of the protagonist’s. In all three cases the woman’s story is rather opaque, since it is constructed in the imagination of the man, who may be confused and blinded by his narcissism, and who has ‘bracketed’ the woman by ignoring her or fitting her into his rigid frame (see Sedgwick, 199). The mixed feelings behind Kathy’s to-ing and fro-ing with the fishing-boat picture and the somewhat awkward last-minute introduction of a third partner for her do not make for a very satisfactory story, and Kathy, after her spunky start, fails to be a memorable personality, so that Harry’s loss lacks the poignancy of Marcher’s and Duffy’s. But poignancy may not be what Sillitoe aims at; rather, he may be multiplying effects of a failure to live so complete that the characters do not even succeed in being – in having any identity. The wretched picture is a kind of fetish, bandaging the gaping lack that their marriage has become, or had been from the start (despite Harry’s efforts to recall good times).
James penned a parable of emptiness, leading his symbolic Marcher to touch rock bottom, drinking to the last drop the consciousness of the nothingness of his existence. There is nowhere to go from here, but Joyce and Sillitoe go there all the same. Their stories are bound to have epigonal status. Just as Duffy and Harry cannot share Marcher’s boast of being the man of his time to whom nothing whatever was to happen, so Joyce and Sillitoe cannot claim any unique distinction in this genre. But the very fact that their stories are cast in the key of repetition and the superfluous enhances the nothingness effect. Intensified by further deflation these tales of failed identity will crack the medium of novelistic and novellistic fiction, as in Kafka and Beckett, where the style itself voices lack in every sentence, beyond any scenarios of disappointed love.
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