There’s inflation, a basic incongruity, in John Marcher’s fateful image of the "beast" in the "The Beast in the Jungle," the novella Henry James (1843-1916) published in his collection The Better Sort in 1903. This is made abundantly clear when one considers the arc and details of the life James’s anti-hero has so far lived and will undoubtedly continue to live. Marcher has chosen to emblematize his extraordinary fate, as he has imagined it for himself, as the figure he cuts, that of the rather "poor sensitive type" (the category or type, named by James, to which he either belongs or epitomizes).
(1844-1910) was James’s contemporary. He
was and continues to be known for his
jungle paintings. His 1891 painting,
known first as "Surprised!" but later called "The Storm in the
Forest," depicts a frightened tiger caught in a storm in the jungle. It draws, one suspects, on the painter’s
vision the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
Rousseau’s tiger, obviously frightened by the lightening in this painting, is emblematic of his more
or less domesticated tigers.
"Lightning flashes and the jungle is swept by tempestuous wind and
rain. Everything is thrown into
convulsive movement," writes
Rousseau’s biographer, who continues, "here we have one of the earliest
demonstrations of Rousseau’s imaginative powers, his sense of drama and mystery
and of the strange forces of nature"
(Ronald Alley, Portrait of a
Primitive: The Art of Henri Rousseau, 1978). Can we not say that Marcher has over-reached
in choosing his figurative metaphor, that he has metaphorically chewed more
than he has bitten off?
In thinking that May Bartram knows what he does not
know-the event or experience he thinks of "the springing of the
beast"-he sees in her a Sybil (or, maintaining his zoological imaginary, a
sphinx) -and he does so precisely at the time when she has fallen fatally into
last illness. The unsettling settled lion does not crouch as if about to
strike; it merely rests there, knowing what it knows, just as May Bartram knows
what she known, even as Marcher does not.
by a Tiger"