All the way from its shock-horror title to its cataclysmic climax, Henry James'
'The Beast in the Jungle' is one of the very few truly psychological thrillers
- a thriller in which all the usual chases and arrests, discoveries and reversals,
murders and trials have been completely internalised.
What we would see, if someone were mad enough to film the story, would be
two comfortably well-off Victorians, a man and a woman, sitting on either
side of a fireplace, growing old, watching and waiting.
Not exactly Rider Haggard, is it? But the story is invested with all the tension
of a thriller because the reader knows, the whole way through, that the two
characters' very lives are at stake - they could win or lose everything.
The story's overall theme seems to be waste, missed opportunities, loneliness;
the moral may concern the terrible danger of sophistication, of believing
that one knows oneself completely.
But, like Madame Bovary and Emma, 'The Beast in the Jungle' seems to have
its second reading written in to it (when we know what happens but want to
watch how it happens), third (when we want to watch how the author does it),
fourth (when we want to catch the author out), fifth (when we know the author
is invulnerable and just want to marvel)...
And with each successive reading, the theme changes, the moral changes.
That's why, for me, particularly in his short stories, James remains The Master.