Author: Henry James
First published: 1903, by Methuen (London) and Charles Scribner’s Sons (New York)
What is it?
In this masterpiece of suspense, Henry James, true to form, withholds the answer while driving us ever increasingly toward it. John Marcher is a bachelor, haunted by something he cannot name, consumed by the horrible idea that someday—something—will happen to him. He’s a man who’s unsettled—someone who has “never been settled for an hour in his life”—and it is equally unsettling to us as readers, that nothing whatsoever is happening in this story, and yet everything is happening all at once.
“I thought of dreadful things, between which it was difficult to choose; and so must you have done.”
“Rather! I feel now as if I had scarce done anything else. I appear to myself to have spent my life in thinking of nothing but dreadful things. A great many of them I’ve at different times named to you, but there were others I couldn’t name.”
“They were too, too dreadful?”
“Too, too dreadful—some of them.”
May Bartram is the sole confidant of John Marcher’s feeling—the only one on earth who shares in Marcher’s sense of doom. Or understands it rather, because she does not dread the thing itself, but “watches” for it with him as they patiently wait, through years, for the beast to emerge. They are not lovers or even friends, for Marcher is so consumed by his idea that he can have neither of these. But their relationship binds them together with an intensity that even death cannot diminish.
The frustration of James’s narrative and his refusal ever to “come out with it,” as it were, border on cruel. And yet, sentence after sentence, he seduces us into obsessing, like his protagonist, over something that is never visible or within reach. What we care about in this story is something that is at once individual and universal. What is the beast? A demon? Desire? Shame, failure, fear, death . . . a terrible secret? Knowledge? The brilliance of this extraordinary novella lies not just in the blurring of the lines between our beasts, but in forcing us, with John Marcher, to confront an inevitable and horrifying question:
Are we destined to slay the beast, or will we, in the end, be slain by it?