The Jolly Corner | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Jolly Corner | Context

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America in 1900

At the turn of the 19th century America was booming. Many changes had occurred in the two decades during which Henry James lived in Europe. America had become an industrialized world power. After America defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, America was the most important power in the western hemisphere. America exercised its imperialistic weight by taking the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and later annexing Hawaii. The nation was settled from the east to the west coast with 193,000 miles of railroad tracks crisscrossing the country. The Native Americans were defeated and all were moved to reservations. This allowed for the boom in agriculture. By 1900 not only was America the major agricultural producer in the world, it also produced more steel than any other country in the world. The automobile had been invented, and the Ford Motor Company was established in 1903. The Wright brothers had begun work on their flying machine. Telephones were widely used, electricity lit up the country, motion pictures were being made, and the radio would soon be invented.

This is the America that James returned to after two decades of being away in Europe. Unlike his protagonist in "The Jolly Corner" who visited from Europe and decided to stay in America, James stayed only for 10 months. He then returned to Europe for the remainder of his life.

Great Britain in 1900

Queen Victoria's reign in England began in 1837 and came to an end in 1901. At the beginning of the 20th century in Great Britain there was a downturn in power and strength, especially compared to other countries in Europe and to the United States. This downturn was reflected in Great Britain's military defeats in the South African War of 1899–1902. It was also reflected in the realization that the poor, especially in urban areas, were still poor despite the government's liberal and regulative acts. Industrialization had expanded as it had in America with the development of more railway lines, the telephone, and the telegraph, although the advancement still did not match that of America.

Culturally, however, Great Britain was the center of the English-speaking world. Literature and theater thrived in Great Britain during this time, with playwrights like George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Henrik Ibsen advancing the quality of theater in London. However, this occurred a little late for James, who did not continue his playwriting efforts after the failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895. There was easy access to printed literature for the middle class in Great Britain, as well as the upper class. Authors wrote different content for each audience, and their work was often serialized in magazines and periodicals. Much of Henry James's work was initially available in this way.

Another aspect of cultural life in Great Britain that undoubtedly interested James greatly was a resurgence of interest in the supernatural. Even though the Victorian age was notable for its increasing belief in the laws of nature and science, interest in the supernatural also increased. Believers in the supernatural sought to defend their beliefs with scientific underpinnings. There was special interest in the phenomenon of the séance; again, something that James would have been very interested in.

It was a craze in the United Kingdom after the 1850s and affected all classes of society. The participants of a séance were titillated by the idea of conversing with someone who had passed on to the other world and finding answers to their personal dilemmas. These types of séances took place in America as well. Combined with his fascination and focus on the life of the mind, James was attracted to the supernatural and was comfortable exploring it in his work.

Freud

Sigmund Freud was born in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic, in 1856, making him 13 years younger than Henry James. Despite this age difference Freud's theories had an effect on James's views on human consciousness and more directly on his writing. Specifically, in 1895 Freud published Studies in Hysteria jointly with another physician. In this work Freud announced his technique of "free association," a method aimed at exploring the unconscious part of the mind. While Freud was not the first to conceive of an unconscious part of the mind, he theorized that the unconscious mind even more than the conscious mind was the motivator of people's thoughts, feelings, and actions. Free association intended to reveal the content of the unconscious mind, sharing much in common with James's emerging writing style, "stream of consciousness." The characters in James's novels reveal their unconscious minds as they express thoughts that are not necessarily related to one another and do not necessarily follow a logical path from one rational thought to another. It is unknown whether Freud's interest and exploration of his patients' unconscious minds through "free association" directly influenced James's technique of rendering his characters' inner lives. However, James was known as a forerunner of the "stream of consciousness" technique, a literary application of "free association."

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