The Real Thing and The Beast in the Jungle

“The Real Thing” and “The Beast in the Jungle” are similar in that both stories discuss the concept of someone trying to acquire something only to realize that he doesn’t actually want it. In “The Real Thing”, the artist is looking for the perfect upper class couple, while in “The Beast in the Jungle”, Marcher is looking to share the feelings of May. Sam Whitsitt writes in The Henry James Review, “Sketching out in his Notebooks what was later to become, ’The Real Thing,’ James wrote that the story should be, among other things, “a magnificent lesson” (104).

While James did not bother to explain what that lesson might be or for whom — or just why it might be magnificent — James never seems to have written anything without someone being taught something by somebody. The problem for the reader, however, has always been that of figuring out who the teacher is and who the taught — not to mention what is supposedly being taught. And such is the case with “The Real Thing.

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The story is about the relationships between an artist and two sets of models and clearly has its teachers and pupils, but as the history of its interpretation shows us, whether the artist teaches a lesson to a pair of would-be models, or the would-be models teach a lesson to the artist remains an open question, not in spite of but because critics have apparently felt compelled to decide the issue one way or the other… An artist discovers that he can draw his scenes of high life better with a servant girl and an ice-cream vendor as models than with Major and Mrs.

Monarch, who are the real thing. The narrator, a painter, is visited one day by a couple [Major and Mrs. Monarch] who show every sign of belonging to the nobility; they ask if they can pose for any book illustrations he might be doing, for they are reduced to a state of extreme destitution. . . . The couple are in fact “the real thing,” [but] Art requires quite different qualities, so that being “real” can even . . . be disastrous. . . . (167)” Whitsitt writes that in the beginning of the story, the artist was looking for an upper class couple to paint.

He believed that if he had an authentic couple then it would make the painting more authentic. However, by the end of the story, he realized that the authenticity would in fact hinder his art. Kevin Ohi draws a similar conclusion from “The Beast in the Jungle”. He writes how Marcher tries to acquire the same feelings that Mary has for the tomb. He flings himself onto the tomb, but to no avail. Marcher realizes that he just does not have the same outlooks as Mary, but he accepts it.

Kevin Ohi writes, “The Beast in the Jungle” repeatedly puns on the word expression: when we are told that Marcher’s situation turned almost fresh, “usually under the effect of some expression drawn from herself”—and “her expressions doubtless repeated themselves” (46)—we inevitably hear “expression” to mean both a phrase and a “signifying” face, where in the latter case, therefore, it is difficult to tell whether the expression drawn from her appears on his face or hers.

At the beginning, the passage we quoted earlier—”It led, briefly, in the course of the October afternoon, to his closer meeting with May Bartram, whose face, a reminder yet not quite a remembrance, had begun merely by troubling him rather pleasantly”—continues: “It affected him as the sequel of something of which he had lost the beginning. He knew it, and for the time quite welcomed it, as a continuation, but didn’t know what it continued, which was an interest or an amusement the greater as he was also somehow aware—yet without a direct sign from her—that the young woman herself hadn’t lost the thread” (34).

It” seems to refer to “May’s face,” which suggests that her face affects Marcher as a “sequel,” and the possibility at least emerges of reading every instance of that proliferating pronoun as likewise referring to his interlocutor’s face. The turning of a blank face to an open page no doubt belongs to this movement and to a more literal choreography of “turning” in the story. At the end, of course, Marcher, “instinctively turning . . . lung himself, face down, on the tomb” (71). Read in terms of knowledge, the moment seems to mark a refusal—a turning away from what he might countenance or face.

For a reader, it is striking that Marcher’s gesture repeats May’s earlier one when, “her face shining at him,” he only expectantly gapes: “she gave way at the same instant to a slow fine shudder, and though he remained staring—though he stared in fact the harder—turned off and regained her chair” (59). She repeats this gesture in their final interview: “she turned her eyes away” [62]. ) Confronting the tomb that refuses to speak, Marcher is “powerless to turn away” (66). Once the tomb becomes “an open page,” May’s eyes seem to distill that gesture—to become a pure turning (or a turning that is—from every point—a turning away, and thus a turning that never turns away)”. In fact, one can see this concept in the beginning of the story. David Smit writes,” 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 know what the significant event is…” Even though both characters sought to acquire the truth, perhaps subconsciously they didn’t actually desire it. The writers seems to indicate that in both stories there was something that the main character wanted to attain, however, in the end realized that he didn’t want it.

The artist started off overjoyed with the fact that he’ll have an authentic upper class couple. However, by the end of the story he realized that it was better to just have the Italian and the lower class English woman. One can see this idea in “The Beast in the Jungle” as well. Marcher thought that he wanted to have the same feelings as May, but concluded that he did not want them. Granted, he had some despair at the end of the story, but one can’t assume that the missing feelings were the cause.