The Jolly Corner | Study Guide

Henry James

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The Jolly Corner | Themes



As in James's other writings irony plays a part in this story. The reader senses the verbal irony of the title "The Jolly Corner" as soon as the story starts to unfold. Brydon's childhood does not appear to have been jolly at all. His relationship with his father seems to have been contentious. Brydon describes leaving this childhood home "almost in the teeth of my father's curse." Many members of his family lived and died in this empty mansion, and this contributes to the irony of calling it "the jolly corner." When Brydon returns to the mansion after 33 years he sees a place that is decidedly less charming, grossly urbanized with ugly modern buildings. It feels anything but "jolly" to his eyes. Rather than feeling comforted in his old family mansion Brydon feels unfamiliar, unsettled, and frightened.

Another irony in "The Jolly Corner" is a situational one. Initially during his midnight and early morning wanderings through the mansion, Brydon believes himself to be the predator of the ALTER EGO he is seeking and, conversely, the ALTER EGO to be the prey. During his most frightening night there, Brydon sees that he is no longer the predator. He is the prey and is being stalked by his ALTER EGO. He is terrified that he will actually see his ALTER EGO if he opens the closed door that he thought he had left open. This is ironic because Brydon has been relentlessly seeking his ALTER EGO during his late night prowls. On the verge of seeing his ALTER EGO, however, he is frightened, not satisfied. He is no longer the hunter. He is not in charge. He is at the mercy of the spell that he himself has created. With this irony Brydon is the victim of his own machinations. The conclusion to this situational irony occurs on the last night of Brydon's nighttime prowlings of the empty mansion. Although his goal has been to see his ALTER EGO, when he finally does see him he is terrified, not gratified. The presence he sees is a "stranger, whoever he might be, evil, odious, blatant, vulgar, [who] had advanced as for aggression." Rather than being satisfied that he has fulfilled his quest, he is so frightened by seeing his ALTER EGO that he loses consciousness.


Spencer Brydon is a harsh judge of himself. The reader does not know if this judgment is something he learned in his family environment as a child or if his father had perhaps wanted him to become a successful businessman in New York and he had refused. Whatever the reason, Brydon judges himself harshly when he says he led a self-indulgent, frivolous life in Europe. Returning to America and finding it much changed and not particularly to his liking, he feels disoriented, lost, and uncertain about his future. He feels he has accomplished nothing worthwhile in his life. Perhaps Brydon judges himself so harshly because of his growing attachment to Alice Staverton. He believes that she feels he would have been a successful businessman if he had not left, and she would have been more attracted to him than she is now. He feels that he is not good enough for her: not successful enough or wealthy enough.

When Brydon visits one of the buildings he owns to witness the renovations he has organized, he discovers he has an intelligent sense of how the work should be done. Here, the narrator states that "he scarce knew what to make of this lively stir, in a compartment of his mind never yet penetrated, of a capacity for business and a sense for construction." Rather than giving him satisfaction, however, this realization increases Brydon's dissatisfaction with himself. He reflects that "he had clearly for too many years neglected a real gift. If he had but stayed at home he would have anticipated the inventor of the sky-scraper. If he but stayed at home he would have discovered his genius in time really to start some new variety of awful architectural hare and run it till it burrowed in a gold mine." With this newfound talent Brydon is filled with regret that he never reached his full potential. He is left with such curiosity about what he could have been that it leads to his obsession with his ALTER EGO.


The narrator describes the tender, authentic qualities of love that Alice Staverton feels for Spencer Brydon. It is a theme that is a strong counterpoint to the harsh judgment that Brydon feels toward himself. It is also a strong counterpoint to the verbal and situational irony with which James describes Brydon's return to his childhood home. Alice Staverton's love is so sincere and seems to arise so full-blown when she first resumes her acquaintance with Brydon that the reader might wonder if she has loved Brydon for the whole 33 years he has been away. She has not married. The reader knows nothing of her life during those 33 years and very little of her life when she resumes her friendship with Brydon.

Brydon is tortured by the idea that Alice would have liked him more if he had remained in New York. He says, "I see. You'd have liked me, have preferred me, a billionaire!" Alice replies, "How should I not have liked you?" Though Alice assures Brydon that he is good enough as he is now, his self-judgment makes it difficult for him to accept, as seen in this exchange: "'You mean I'm good enough?' She considered a little. 'Will you believe it if I say so? I mean will you let that settle your question for you?'" Alice understands Brydon's insecurity and does not love him any less for it. She understands him and the torturous obsession that he is grappling with. The somewhat supernatural experience that she has of dreaming about his ALTER EGO at exactly the same time that Brydon "sees" his ALTER EGO is testament to the great sympathy she feels for Brydon. When Alice clasps Brydon to her breast at the end of the story, James suggests that Alice's love will restore and heal Brydon.

Questions for Themes

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How would you explain how a good, loving and all-powerful God allows suffering and evil in his creation?
Tell us what the best piece of writing your ever read was. Why did you think so? What did it reach you so well? Was there something special about the description or detail? Did you like the writer's v
Briefly explain the opinions of two of Ravana’s brothers (Kumbakarna and Vibishana) during their council meeting.
to whom i should speak today meaning every stanza . please help me i badly needed this.
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