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The Leap of the Beast: The Dramatic Style of Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle" by David Smit, University of Iowa 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—spoke as they lingered and slowly moved together after their renewal of acquaintance .—Henry James, "The Beast in the Jungle" Only a few words into the story and we know where we are, at least in general— we are in Henry James country, the jungle . In another sense, of course, we are nowhere at all. We do not know who "he" is or who "they" are or what "the speech that startled him" is or why the speech should have startled him at all. A few steps more and we are already in the thick of it, wading through syntax that surges fitfully forward, over and around the interjections and appositions, hacking through dense qualifications and abstract nomináis, swatting at pronouns that buzz about, hovering, always seeming to be but never quite there. We resist an initial impulse to just give up, to return to easier terrain, because deep inside we believe that attacking the wilderness is good for us, and because maybe, just maybe, winded and overwrought, we'U experience that rush of sense and feeling that comes with a prolonged effort, when the words take over and for a glorious period we're somewhere else, inside the words or behind them, wherever words take us. Still, the way seems more difficult than usual. After all, we have found ourselves following, fascinated, John Marcher and May Bartram as they discuss a rare and strange event that is going to happen in Marcher's future. The event is not specified , and the more Marcher and May talk, the more we realize that neither of them knows what the significant event is. AU we learn is that May promises to help Marcher watch and wait for the great event to happen, whatever it is. The prospect of watching two people wait for a nameless event does not seem to hold out much of a reward for all of the effort we have made up until now. And yet, paradoxicaUy, as we continue to wait with the couple we realize a sense of progress. When May says that she knows the great secret, that in fact it has already happened but that she will not teU Marcher what it is, we intuitively sense our goal. And when the final rush comes— for me it was the beginning of the sixth and last section of the story—even as we are being carried away, we know we have been guided, cared for, that the jungle has been artfully arranged. As we hurtle forward, we catch glimpses of the things that have been there all along, making our progress, if not easy, then "dramatic" at least. The final revelation is the ultimate conclusion to the paradox: a present metaphor dramatizes a past event that didn't happen, and our hero's suffering at the end is the strange and rare experience that he has already missed. James himself, in his preface, caUed the life of John Marcher in "The Beast in the Jungle" "a great negative adventure" (BJ x)—this from a writer who worshiped the idea of "the dramatic." Now, it is precisely the idea of "the dramatic" that is a difficult problem in James. When critics call James's method dramatic, most often they are referring to the manner of his overall presentation, his arrangement of picture and scene.1 And in the prefaces to the New York Edition of his works, James does indeed provide evidence for this interpretation . In the preface to What Maisie Knew, for example, he has this to say about "scene": "The treatment by 'scene' regularly , quite rhythmically recurs; the intervals between, the massing of the elements to a different effect and by a quite other law, remain, in this fashion, all preparative, just as the scenic occasions in themselves become , at a given moment, illustrative . . ." (AN 157-58, italics mine). James is here commenting on the...


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pp. 219-230
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