Relationship Values In The Early 1900s Compared To Now
What Once Was Precious
Throughout history, relationships have evolved and gone through dramatic changes based on the social norms at the time. Relationships during the era of Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” differ from those of today in terms of formality, longevity, and importance. This is because all three of those characteristics were expected of relationships in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, but by now all of them seem to be purely optional.
In the past, marriage and romantic relationships were handled with a certain amount of formality. Though May Bartram and John Marcher are not doing anything scandalous such as living together, the fact that they have been seen in public together and yet are unmarried is enough to set people talking. On one particular occasion, May mentions that their peculiar relationship has made them “a good deal talked about” (James 460). Her intent is to plant the idea of marriage into his head – what she has wished for the whole of her time with him – not only because she wants to stay aligned with social etiquette, but because she is in love with him. However, he is often oblivious in the face of her subtle hints, and this instance is no exception. Because it is not proper for women to be outspoken, May does not feel able to do more than drop clues she hopes he will pick up on. Despite society’s disapproval of their strange friendship and May’s understated desire for something more, John is focused solely on his paranoia and is unable to commit himself to her because of it.
Society today seems to operate in a totally different way. Men and women spend time together without being married or even in a dating relationship, and it is not seen as weird or improper. Living with someone to decide whether they have marriage potential or not has also become commonplace. Sometimes people will even live with each other just because the option is there, not because they are interested in pursuing a long-term relationship. There are no boundaries of etiquette or social decency, which only serves to encourage casual dating, infidelity, and immoral actions even more.
Even though John and May never marry, May commits herself to him and does not falter in her loyalty until her dying day. She is probably fully aware from the beginning that nothing will ever come of their relationship, but she loves him too much to leave him alone with his demons. Thus, she spends her years watching with him and allows this unequal exchange to “give shape and color to her own existence” (James 457). It is not stated implicitly, but she spends the better part of her life by his side, wasting away decade upon decade only to be considered his indispensable friend and “kind wise keeper” (James 456). She is hardly appreciated by John, who is too concerned with his own interests, but even so, that is the way she chooses to live – in service to him.
In contrast, many people in recent generations seem to have forgotten what commitment means anymore. Being married to one person for over twenty years is treated as a rare occurrence, something that has been rumored to be possible but is largely thought to be unattainable. A relationship like John and May’s would be unheard of; if one party believed nothing would come of it or found someone new, they would not hesitate to move on. Relationships that sprout up and wilt away overnight used to be a trademark of high school, but now they can be found everywhere, and the same goes for marriages.
Being in a relationship used to be seen as a prelude to marriage, and marriage itself had a certain sanctity that was protected by society in general. That is why onlookers disapprove of John and May’s relationship that never progresses to marriage, why May remains dedicated to John as long as she is able, and why she never lets go of the hope that one day their relationship will turn into something more. Near the end of her life, she expresses a final time that the opportunity is still there, if only just for a little while. Shyly and sweetly, she steps toward him and tells him that it’s “never too late” (James 467). Yet again he is too blind to see what is standing right in front of him, but even so, the hope of being married to John carried so much weight in May’s life that she never let go of it until she had no choice.
On the other hand, relationships can mean a number of things today. Two people will enter into a relationship because they are insecure, to avoid loneliness, to rebound from a previous relationship, or to simply enjoy the fluff without any consideration of the future; beginning a relationship with the hope that it will lead to marriage is extremely uncommon. Anymore, the same standards apply to marriage. Celebrities will marry for the superficiality of holding a wedding or to create gossip. Divorce is seen as a natural action, the equivalent of breaking off a relationship, instead of destroying what was promised to be a lifelong union. Because people are selfish and encouraged to look out for themselves over all else, they abandon all that is sacred and walk away from the wreckage as if nothing has happened.
Though it is a shame to behold, relationships are not what they used to be. Their previous need for formality has gone by the wayside, they begin and end at lightning speed, and they are not taken nearly as seriously as they were in the past. May Bartram is never able to rest in the security of marriage with John Marcher, but she stays committed to him for several years and treats their relationship with the necessary amount of gravity. She is a perfect example of how society used to value marriages and how they should still be handled today.
James, Henry. “The Beast in The Jungle.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. C. Ed. Nina Baym and others. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. 447-476.