The Jolly Corner | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Jolly Corner | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Return to New York

Spencer Brydon returns to New York City, having left when he was 23. He is now 56 and has been living in Europe for 33 years. There was no need for him to earn a living there because he supported himself on rent from two properties that he owns in New York. He is a self-professed wanderer, having lived a "selfish, frivolous, scandalous life" in Europe. He returns to New York to check up on the two properties he has rented all these years. He finds New York much changed, grossly urbanized, and ugly, especially in comparison with the European environment he left behind. Brydon becomes reacquainted with one of his few old friends still alive in New York, Alice Staverton. He immediately reconnects with her and is drawn to spend as much time with her as he can.

The Alter Ego

It is Alice who suggests to Brydon that if he had stayed in New York he could have become someone important. She implies he could have had a successful real estate business, suggesting, "If he had but stayed at home he would have anticipated the inventor of the skyscraper." It is also Alice who first mentions the idea of ghosts in the mansion on "jolly corner." Spencer replies, "Oh ghosts—of course, the place must swarm with them! I should be ashamed of it if it didn't." Although Brydon frivolously replies to Alice, the image of ghosts does not leave his mind. In fact, he becomes obsessed with who he would have become had he remained in New York. Alice tells him that she has dreamed about this person—the person he would have been. Spencer wants to see him and becomes obsessed with the idea of meeting his ALTER EGO and seeing for himself what he would have been.

Nighttime Visits

The reader learns of Brydon's lonely visits to the empty mansion on the "jolly corner." Sometimes he comes at dusk. Sometimes he comes just before midnight and stays until two in the morning. Brydon roams through the rooms searching for his ALTER EGO—the man he would have been had he stayed in New York. These visits are not pleasant excursions for him. He sees himself as a monstrous cat with large yellow eyes stalking his ALTER EGO, who is represented as a ghost of himself. He wanders through the house either in the dark or with one dim candle and feels as if some presence is following him as he moves from room to room. He comes upon a closed door that he is sure had been open a quarter of an hour before. His fear grows.

The Black Stranger

Brydon does not want to be haunted by this ALTER EGO. He does not want to be tortured by what he would have been if he had not lived a selfish, indulgent life in Europe. He is both attracted and repulsed by the idea of viewing his ALTER EGO. He opens a window to see something familiar and real, to break the frightening spell he is under. He has spent all night, until dawn, under the spell of this other presence in the house—his ALTER EGO. He wants to leave the house, but he believes he should go back to see if the door that had been open is still closed. He fears that if it is open he will look inside and see his ALTER EGO. He also fears that if he opens a fourth-floor window he will throw himself out to escape the spell. He decides not to return to see if the door is still closed. He is too frightened and makes haste to leave the house. As he descends the stairs he sees the inner doors to the vestibule wide open and is sure he had left them closed. Just as he is about to leave the house he is confronted by "the black stranger," an evil, ugly version of himself. Then he loses consciousness.

Awakening

When he regains consciousness Brydon finds himself at the base of the long staircase with his head on Alice Staverton's lap and his housekeeper, Mrs. Muldoon, anxiously peering down at him. As Brydon's consciousness slowly returns he progresses through many emotional states. He is grateful that he has been brought back from a terrifying journey through a long, interminable gray passage. Now that he is back he feels a sense of peace. He seems to have fallen down the stairs but without bruise or injury. Somehow the two women had gotten him to a window bench. Alice thought he was dead when she first found him, and Brydon believes that he was dead and that Alice brought him back to life. Alice bends her head to kiss him and he feels secure.

Acceptance

Brydon reflects on where he has been and how long he has been in the house. Alice knows that he has been going to the empty mansion at night looking for "HIM," the man he would have been had he stayed in New York. She has a deep understanding of Brydon and of the trauma he has just experienced. She reveals that she had a dream about this ALTER EGO coming to Brydon. She is sure that she dreamed this at the same moment the apparition actually appeared to Brydon. Alice explains that the "black stranger" that she saw as Brydon's ALTER EGO did not appear abhorrent to her as he had to Brydon. She accepted this other person, strange though he appeared. She maintains that this horrible creature was not Brydon. She loves Brydon exactly as he is and does not need him to be anything other than himself. Brydon is greatly comforted by her accepting love for him. He loves her in return.

Analysis

"The Jolly Corner" as a Ghost Story

Henry James began writing ghost stories as early as 1868 while still living in America. He continued to write 18 ghost stories through the years until 1908 when he wrote "The Jolly Corner." Given James's fascination with the mind and consciousness it is not surprising that an element of the supernatural would appear in his work. He wrote so much about the inner workings of his characters' minds that it is as if he had done research and acquired a body of knowledge about the workings of the conscious mind. Additionally, the practice of the séance was wildly popular in Great Britain during the late Victorian period when James lived there. The ritual of the séance was a gathering of people attempting to make contact with the dead, usually guided by a person known as the medium. James could well have known about this practice and heard stories of ghost sightings by the participants.

James was not the first individual to contemplate the idea of an alter ego. Anton Mesmer was an 18th-century German physician who believed in the idea of an alternate self. The term "mesmerize" is derived from his name because he was one of the first to practice hypnosis to bring the alternate self, or alter ego, to the hypnotized person's consciousness. James refers to this concept in "The Jolly Corner," writing, "It marked nonetheless a prodigious thrill, a thrill that represented sudden dismay, no doubt, but also represented, and with the selfsame throb, the strangest, the most joyous, possibly the next minute almost the proudest, duplication of consciousness." Brydon says this on a night when he feels he is close to seeing his ALTER EGO in the mansion.

Autobiographical Nature of "The Jolly Corner"

During 1904–05 James returned to America for an extended visit, having lived in England for the previous 20 years. He returned to find America much changed from what it was in 1875. He found it to be more harshly urbanized, despite having become a successful industrial and political power. He deplored the materialization that he saw in America; the rising pollution; the sacrifice of the old for ugly, modern architecture; and the negative aspects of a "melting pot" culture. All these qualities were quite different from the European world he had lived in for two decades.

When he returned to Europe he was motivated to write his observations and opinions in The American Scene (1907), in which he expressed more negative predictions for the environment and culture of America. James described the skyline of New York—something that was new to him during his visit. The skyscraper had taken over the cityscape, with James commenting, "Crowned not only with no history, but with no credible possibility of time for history, and consecrated by no uses save the commercial at any cost, they are simply the most piercing notes in that concert of the expensively provisional into which your supreme sense of New York resolves itself."

In "The Jolly Corner" the protagonist, Spencer Brydon, was born in probably much the same kind of lower Manhattan mansion as the one in which Henry James was born. Brydon left America for Europe when he was 23; James left when he was 33. The transatlantic experience that James writes about is the opposite of his usual one—that of an American coming to Europe. Here, James describes the American coming home to New York. Brydon has a similar viewpoint to that of James when he revisited America in 1905, as the narrator describes: "He closed the door and, while he re-pocketed his key, looking up and down, they took in the comparatively harsh actuality of the Avenue, which reminded him of the assault of the outer light of the Desert on the traveler emerging from an Egyptian tomb." Brydon's tone in this description is similar to James's feeling upon viewing the harsh New York skyline during his return visit in 1905. Brydon's experience therefore parallels the author's own experience of returning to a much more industrialized, urbanized, chaotic city.

The Role of the Narrator

As in many of James's fictional tales the narrator's role is key. By the time James wrote "The Jolly Corner" in 1908 he had been writing short stories since 1868. During those 40 years James had perfected his craft and, in particular, the theme of human consciousness that was prevalent in most of his fiction. The narrator conveys this theme with thoroughness, drama, and detail as well as subtlety. "The Jolly Corner" is an effectively frightening ghost story, as highlighted when the narrator tells the reader, "Horror, with the sight, had leaped into Brydon's throat, gasping there in a sound he couldn't utter; for the bared identity was too hideous as HIS, and his glare was the passion of his protest. The face, THAT face, Spencer Brydon's?" The narrator takes the reader to this point, the story's climax, having built on Brydon's ruminations since the beginning. The reader knows the characters through the narrator's descriptions. By contrast, the reader knows nothing of the narrator—the narrator could be a mouthpiece for Henry James or could play some other role that James controls. Whatever the case, the narrator reveals the inner workings of the characters' consciousness.

The narrator controls everything the reader knows about the characters. Early on the narrator describes the complicated relationship between Brydon and Alice. Through the narrator the reader learns how insecure Brydon is and how deeply Alice cares for him despite his insecurity. Brydon recognizes how much Alice understands and accepts him. Alice says to him, "Oh you don't care either—but very differently: you don't care for anything but yourself," and the narrator adds that "Spencer Brydon recognized it—it was in fact what he had absolutely professed." Alice does not make this remark to be judgmental but rather to show Brydon that she understands him, and Brydon does not feel criticized. Instead, he feels understood because he knows that this is the truth about himself. The reader already knows by this time that Alice loves Brydon. The reader can wonder if she has loved Brydon for the decades that he has been in Europe. The narrator does not answer all the questions the reader might have about the characters, but the reader can appreciate what the narrator tells using detail, drama, and subtlety.

The Jolly Corner Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Brydon returns to New York City from Europe.

Rising Action

2 Brydon visits his childhood home and relives many memories.

3 Alice Staverton, an old acquaintance of Brydon, reemerges.

4 Brydon prowls the mansion late at night.

Climax

5 Finally seeing his ALTER EGO terrifies Brydon.

Falling Action

6 Brydon loses consciousness after falling down the stairs.

Resolution

7 Brydon awakens in the arms of Alice Staverton.

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