The Jolly Corner Style and Technique

Henry James

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The other notable feature of this, one of James’s last completed stories, is its characteristic density of syntax. “The Jolly Corner” provides an excellent example of that “late style” that has captivated James’s admirers and infuriated his critics. Several explanations have been offered for this gradual shift in James’s stylistic practice toward greater and greater intricacy and attenuation. (One of the least convincing is Leon Edel’s assertion that this shift was caused by James’s change from composing in longhand to dictating to a secretary.) Whatever the reasons for the markedly increased difficulty of James’s writings from the turn of the century onward, one thing is indisputable: The attenuation of direct statement, the endless qualification and hedging around a point, serves to reinforce one’s sense of the tentative and uncertain quality in the thinking of James’s characters.

The whole point about Spencer Brydon is that by leaving the United States he has abandoned that life of active and vigorous intervention in the world (figured here in the possibility that he would have pursued a career in business) in order to live more or less freely (if narrowly) and unencumbered by the necessity to act directly or decisively. James’s stylistic practice thus motivates and effectively realizes a character whose raison d’être is precisely not to be decisive, powerful, or direct. Brydon’s incapacity to decide who he is or might have been, his tentativeness in confronting his alter ego (despite his manifest desire to meet this creature) is in part the result of the very circumlocutions, the syntactic irresolution of James’s style. Whatever may have been the motivation of James’s later style, it would seem that here at least the fit between thematic focus and linguistic practice is most intimate.