115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Asexuality and Homosexual Panic in Henry James's The Beast in the Jungle

Aaron Henson, "University of Wisconsin, Madison"

This paper explores the role homosexual panic plays in Henry James’s The Beast in the Closet. While critical consensus views Marcher as a homosexual male, I propose an alternative reading of Marcher’s sexuality as an asexual male who experiences homosexual panic, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues in “The Beast in the Jungle.” I respond to Sedgwick’s argument in order to update it with recent research conducted on asexuality. Marcher’s asexuality, panic, and closeting expands the variability of queer male experience, especially as presented in literature.


Henry James’s 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle depicts John Marcher’s life as he struggles with a secret: “the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible.” Though the secret is never clarified, critical consensus reads it as closeted homosexuality. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick further explored this theme in her 1990 book chapter “The Beast in the Closet,” in which she argues Marcher experiences homosexual panic, the vulnerability to homophobic blackmail. However, recent theoretical developments regarding asexuality provide new insights into Marcher’s sexuality that challenge Sedgwick’s reading. In an attempt to update Sedgwick’s argument to remain consistent with new research, I argue that while Marcher does experience homosexual panic, he is neither homosexual or heterosexual, but asexual. Sedgwick’s analysis of homosexual panic still holds true in this reading because as an asexual male, Marcher can fear being misidentified as homosexual and fear the secret (of his asexuality) may become known. This panic, as well as his unawareness of his asexuality, leads to Marcher’s troubled nonsexual relationship with May Bartram.

Most critics understand Marcher as homosexual due to the illegibility of his sexuality. He develops an intimate, nonsexual relationship with May, but stays somewhat unattached. His attachment with her is a component in his closeting, as he relies on her for definition and to “‘pass for a man like another.’” This closeting becomes so important to Marcher than when May dies, he struggles with feelings that his own life is over. Interestingly, while Marcher remains completely unaware of the knowledge of the secret, May understands. While she obviously desires more, she realizes that her wish will never be fulfilled. Marcher’s unawareness of his secret and his reliance on a woman to conceal it reveals the sociosexual processes at work in James’s novella. As a closeted asexual male, Marcher does not experience desire, but understands it is not “normal.” When pressured by social compulsory sexuality—a revision of Adrienne Rich’s compulsory heterosexuality that mandates any sexual behavior—he closets himself through his relationship with May. However, his fear of self-identification and being outed by society leads to the homosexual panic Sedgwick described. While not homosexual, the fear of sexual-based homophobic blackmail, especially misidentification as a queer male, results in the same panic. Furthermore, his reliance on May, whom he views as who constitutes his own life as a human, reveals compulsory sexuality’s refusal to recognize the autonomy and humanness of asexual individuals. This marginalization contributes to and intensifies the panic Marcher experiences, culminating in his psychological breakdown after May’s death.

This paper aims to propose both a new understanding of Marcher and the sexual processes in play in the novel, while also expanding to theoretical initiatives in literary studies. While much gender and sexuality studies theory and criticism has been produced, asexuality is an often-ignored sexual identity. Recent research in asexuality can aid literary studies in producing a deeper understanding of sexuality and asexuality, highlighting the variability in sexual experience of both characters and in contemporary life.