Analysis of Henry James’s Jolly Corner

First published in the English Review, this story, frequently interpreted in conjunction with “The Beast in the Jungle” and The Turn of the Screw, begins in medias res. Spencer Brydon, age 56, who has just returned to New York from Europe after a 23-year absence, is speaking to Alice Staverton, an old friend whom, we quickly learn, he visits as often as possible. Spencer has returned to oversee two inherited city houses, one a rental property he is renovating, the other, on the “jolly corner,” fi lled with memories of his boyhood and adolescence. Since then he has been a wanderer, a free man who has enjoyed pleasures, frivolities, and infi delities Alice only dimly comprehends. He views Alice as lovely, fl owerlike, one who shares memories of their youthful days in a New York far less chaotic than it appears now. They enter the house on the jolly corner that Spencer has decided to keep, having already hired Mrs. Muldoon, a housekeeper, who is pleased with the arrangements as long as she need not enter the premises after dark.

In their conversation, Spencer confesses to Alice that he is drawn to the house as he is drawn to the question of an alter ego, the self he might have become had he not left for Europe. Together they conclude he would have become a billionaire living on the proceeds of the construction of the skyscrapers that now punctuate the city skyline. Spencer is determined to meet his alter ego, or doppelgänger, in the house on the jolly corner, and Alice confesses to him that she has seen that other Spencer twice in her dreams. She refuses, however, to discuss him further.

Henry James/The New Yorker

The rest of the tale is a suspenseful ghost story, one in which Spencer, alone at night in the house, summons the courage to stalk his double and to draw him out. Indeed, the uncharacteristic hunting metaphors have prompted at least one critic to note a resemblance to a motif more commonly associated with Ernest Hemingway. Other critics have noted that Spencer seems a double for the author himself, as James wrote the story after returning to New York after a two-decade-long absence. After so many years in Europe, James might well have wondered what sort of man he might have been had he stayed in the New York of his youth.

After some spine-tingling near-encounters with his alter ego, including one scene in which he briefl y appears to consider suicide by jumping from the window, Spencer faces the monstrous, hideous apparition, an utter stranger who looms larger than he, and falls into unconsciousness. Hours later Spencer looks up into the faces of Mrs. Muldoon and Alice. He believes that he has died and that Alice has resurrected him. She reassures him that he never became the dreadful beast he would have been had he not left New York and that by having faced his double, Spencer can understand his true self as it has developed. The depth of Alice’s love is measured in her admission that she would have loved him in either form. As the critic Richard A. Hocks points out, Spencer is “saved by the regenerative power of love; in more psychoanalytic terms, his divided self is regenerated with her help” (80). A homosexual interpretation is possible as well, especially if “The Jolly Corner” is compared with recent studies, such as Eve Kosofsky Segwick’s on “The Beast in the Jungle.” Spencer’s numerous allusions to “Europe” and to the pleasures he had engaged in as a wandering bachelor at the very least suggest that we should look more closely into the autobiographical connections between James and his protagonist.

Hocks, Richard A. Henry James: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
James, Henry. “The Jolly Corner.” In Major Writers of Short Fiction, edited by Ann Charters. Boston: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “The Beast in the Closet: James and the Writing of Homosexual Panic.” In Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel, edited by Ruth Bernard Yeazell, 148–186. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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