illustration of main character Brydon standing between two properties with each half of his body drawn in a different style to represent the respective properties

The Jolly Corner

by Henry James
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 704

As the comparative brevity of the incidents indicates, the interest of “The Jolly Corner” lies primarily elsewhere than in the structure of its plot. As is not uncommon in the later Henry James, both in the novels and in the tales, the amount of incident is severely circumscribed, while the space given to reflection and elaboration on the inner states of the characters (here only one character, Spencer Brydon) is correspondingly expanded to such an extent that the story is virtually consumed by this psychological interest. If one compares “The Jolly Corner” with, for example, the earlier The Turn of the Screw (1898), surely James’s most famous ghost story, one sees immediately how comparatively slender is the thread of the plot in the later story. All the interest and all the importance in this tale reside in its disclosure of Brydon’s thoughts, his fears and anxieties, his inability to confront the ghost of his former, or other, self.

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The two major symbolic figures in the story are the house—Brydon’s “jolly corner”—and the ghost. Both are described in some detail, and it is in the intricacy of their symbolic resonance that the key to this story lies. The house is of several stories and contains many rooms, each of which possesses a door. The psychoanalytic dimension of this feature is surely not inapposite (regardless of whether James knew about psychoanalysis proper—and there is some evidence to indicate that he did). Entering a closed room, according to psychoanalysis, symbolizes unlocking previously suppressed memories of one’s mental life. The fact that James himself, in one of his autobiographical volumes written not long after “The Jolly Corner,” recounts a dream in which he recovers the world of his youth by passing through a locked door suggests that he was perfectly aware of the psychic implications of this aspect of his story. Brydon’s search for his other self, what he might have been had he remained in the United States and pursued, as he likely would have done, a career in business, is a search into previously unexplored corners of his own mind and self.

The other major symbol is simply that self that Brydon does finally confront near the end of the tale—despite the fact that he stubbornly refuses to recognize himself in the visage of the ghost. The figure’s opulent dress (white gloves, evening clothes, monocle—all indicate his wealth, the fact that, as Brydon observes to Miss Staverton; this figure is a millionaire), along with his damaged extremity, does not at first put Brydon off. He has already observed that by abandoning New York City, he blighted or stunted the proper development of his other self. However, when the specter lowers his hands to reveal his face, Brydon not only is appalled at the sight (the details of what he sees are never given) but also steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the ghost’s identity with himself. It is not he, but, as the story pointedly puts it, “a stranger.” This refusal to recognize the other, to admit that what one might have been (or indeed, in strict psychoanalytic terms, what one invariably is), constitutes a classic example of repression, a symptomatic defense of the integrity of the self against the threat of its dissolution, the alternative being classic schizophrenia, the splitting of the self into two (and possibly more) warring and irreconcilable parts. James’s choice of an ending reasserting the mental health and wholeness of his hero (in contrast to the rather different handling of this motif by his friend Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886) signifies what has often been noted as characteristic of his writing and his project as a man: the necessity for some level of repression and control over the darker impulses of the psyche if human society is to continue to function, possibly even to prosper. James’s faith in the power of the imagination to maintain its balance in the face of threatening influences and disruptive forces is nowhere more apparent than in Brydon’s shutting out of the ghost he cannot recognize as himself if he is to remain who he is.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

Memory and Reminiscence
Spencer Brydon’s return to New York, his friendship with Alice Staverton, and his attraction to the house of his youth illustrate his overwhelming need to analyze his past. He needs to reflect on past events in order to understand who he is now. In particular, Spencer needs to come to terms with what he could have been had he remained in New York; in that way he can accept himself and move on with his life.

Alienation and Loneliness
When Spencer left New York as a young man, he was rejecting a life in business and embracing a career in art. Upon his return, he discovers the full implications of his decision. He has he lost his family; also, New York City has irrevocably changed to the point where he hardly recognizes it. In some ways, Spencer’s experience is universal: in an attempt to recapture the past, he discovers that the world he remembers does not exist anymore. As a result, he feels alienated, cut off from his past and his own identity.

The American Dream
After living abroad for so many years, Spencer is able to view the American Dream as an outside observer. As a child, Spencer grew up in a wealthy, privileged household. As an adult, Spencer has continued to live comfortably on inherited wealth. When he returns to New York, he is disgusted by the ambitious and materialistic nature of the American businessman. From his privileged position, he views the capitalistic system as one that robs its citizens of integrity and culture.

Art and Money
Spencer rejects a career in business and escapes by pursuing a career in art in Europe. Yet while Spencer vilifies the American scene as materialistic and obsessed with money, he continues to live off the profits of that world. The rents from his properties make it possible for him to travel without financial restriction and to live abroad without having to work. The story implies that the pursuit of art is inextricably linked with money; to deny the connection is hypocritical.

Gender Roles
Spencer’s rejection of a business career raises questions about what it means to be a powerful man in the early twentieth century. When he leaves New York City, he seems to have left behind the opportunity to marry and have a family as well as a thriving business career. By linking Spencer’s rejection of business to his absence of family, the story implies that personal choices are related to public pressures. In a sense, Spencer’s pursuit of art is a protest against one-dimensional concepts of masculinity— concepts that relate economic power to one’s worth as a man.

Alice also raises questions about how women are supposed to live their lives. While she stays in Manhattan her entire life, she never marries. The reader learns little about her life apart from her relationship to Spencer. Is her final embrace of Spencer a strong assertion of her will or a late and failed capitulation to the stereotypic woman’s role of passive and dutiful wife?

Transformation and Change
The story hinges on Spencer confronting his alter ego. The story’s conclusion suggests Spencer and Alice will end up together and that Spencer’s wandering has ended. But what has Spencer learned? It is an open question whether Spencer has accepted his past and truly been transformed.

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