The Jolly Corner by Henry James

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

After an absence of thirty-three years, Spencer Brydon returns from abroad to New York City. He makes this dramatic move in order to oversee improvements to his property, which consists of two houses that have been the source of his financial independence throughout his life. One is in the process of being converted into apartments, while the other, the “jolly corner” of the title, is the house in which Brydon grew up and which he therefore is loathe to alter in any way.

In the course of conversations with Miss Staverton, Brydon reflects on what sort of person he might have become had he not chosen to tramp about the world for most of his adult life and had instead stayed in his native United States. Miss Staverton has her views, which do not entirely coincide with those of Brydon. It transpires that Brydon harbors a desire to confront what he terms his “alter ego,” the self he might have been. Miss Staverton reveals that, somewhat incomprehensibly, she has already seen this other self—in her dreams. She, however, declines to disclose what she has seen.

Brydon is in the habit of coming to the jolly corner in the evenings after he has dined out and before retiring to the hotel where he lodges (the house itself remaining empty for the moment). In the course of his nocturnal prowlings about the premises, he hopes to encounter his alter ego, who, in Brydon’s view of things, haunts the house as a ghost. While stalking the creature, Brydon one night discovers that he himself has been turned into the prey, that the ghost is following him.

The climax to the tale occurs one evening when Brydon comes once more to the house, wanders about more or less as usual, but discovers in retracing his steps that one door, which he believed he had left open, has been mysteriously closed, and another that had been closed has been opened. As Brydon retreats carefully down the staircase toward the front door and escape from the pursuing specter, he pauses on the final landing, only to become aware of a vague shape in his view. The shape assumes human form, a man with a monocle, dressed in evening clothes, whose face is hidden by white-gloved hands with two of the fingers missing. As the ghost drops his hands, revealing his face, Brydon is shocked to recognize someone or something totally other than himself—a ghost who is not, so far as Brydon can discern, his other self at all. As the ghost aggressively advances, Brydon retreats and finally faints away at the bottom of the staircase. He awakes to discover the face of Miss Staverton, who had dreamed of Brydon’s confrontation and had been thus prompted to come to the jolly corner to save him. Brydon protests that the ghost was not his other self, a view that Miss Staverton reinforces with “And he isn’t—no, he isn’t—you!” at the tale’s close.

Summary

(Short Stories for Students)

At age fifty-six, Spencer Brydon returns to New York City after spending thirty-three years of his life in Europe. When he left New York, he left behind his family and a promising business career to pursue his appreciation of art. While he is quick to remind himself that he returned merely for the practical task of looking into two pieces of property that he has inherited after the death of his brothers, he is also curious to see how his hometown has changed over the years.

He is shocked by what he finds: the monstrous skyscrapers; the crush of the crowds; the exciting bustle of the social scene; and the thriving economy. Overwhelmed by the change, Spencer feels alienated from the people around him.

While in New York, Spencer renews an acquaintance with an old friend, Alice Staverton. Spencer’s family—his parents, two brothers and ‘‘favourite sister’’—are dead and Alice is the only remaining person he was close to in his youth. Throughout the story, Alice accompanies Spencer as he visits his property, listening to him reminisce. Of all the people he meets in New York, only Alice has the patience and deep sense of the past necessary...

(The entire section is 1,118 words.)