Henry James: Stories


Almost an analog to The Ambassadors, in “The Jolly Corner,” Spencer Brydon is plagued by having frittered away his life abroad, rather than staying home and making a solid life and fortune. As he begins to visit the old house on “the jolly corner” where he grew up late at night, he imagines the ghost of his other self haunting the house. The ghost is in a luxe dressing gown and a pince nez and is missing two fingers (both signs of experience, vs. safe leisure?) But “the face was the face of a stranger.” Alice says “you came to yourself” when he wakes up in her lap. She tells him that she had gotten used to the other him, and even pitied him. They embrace as he says that for all the money he has, the ghost hasn’t got Alice, and she responds, “He isn’t you!” As in The Turn of the Screw, the ghost story here is less about the ghost than about reimagining the affective sensation of the ghost story with psychological realism. Whereas the Gothic, but especially the Victorian, novel often provides a realistic explanation for the ghost, we are imprisoned in the subjectivity of James’ characters.

From Wikipedia:

Spencer Brydon returns to New York City after more than thirty years abroad. He has agreed to have his old family house demolished in favor of a more lucrative apartment building. Before the wreckers begin, he starts to prowl the house at night. Brydon has begun to realize that he might have been an astute businessman if he hadn’t forsaken moneymaking for a more leisurely life. He discusses this possibility with Alice Staverton, his woman friend who has always lived in New York.

Meanwhile Brydon begins to believe that his alter ego—the ghost of the man he might have been—is haunting the “jolly corner”, his nickname for the old family house. After a harrowing night of pursuit in the house, Brydon finally confronts the ghost, who advances on him and overpowers him with “a rage of personality before which his own collapsed.” Brydon eventually awakens with his head pillowed on Alice Staverton’s lap. It is arguable whether or not Spencer had actually become unconscious or whether he had died and has awoken in an afterlife. She had come to the house because she sensed he was in danger. She tells him that she pities the ghost of his alter ego, who has suffered and lost two fingers from his right hand. But she also embraces and accepts Brydon as he is.


The story, as typical of James, unfolds with the conceit that we are in the psychology of the character, so that we are often confused about who or what is the subject of discourse. We learn the names of characters only as he learns or remembers them, and there is a proliferation of deictic pronouns (but their necessary context remains unclear): “What determined the speech that startled him in the course of their encounter scarcely matters…” May’s foreboding line “watching’s always in itself an absorption” prefigures the tragedy of her loss of self. There is also the idea that it is the language he chooses to figure his fate that traps him: what if he had but chosen another metaphor? The metaphor is so precise, while the rest of the language is flooded with uncertainty. In the end, the pain he feels at her death “at least, belated and bitter, had something of the taste of life.”

“But the bitterness suddenly sickened him, and it was as if, horribly, he saw, in the truth, in the cruelty of his image, what had been appointed and done. He saw the Jungle of his life and saw the lurking Beast; then, while he looked, perceived it, as by a stir of the air, rise, huge and hideous, for the leap that was to settle him. His eyes darkened – it was close; and, instinctively turning, in his hallucination, to avoid it, he flung himself, face down, on the tomb.”

Oddly, this ending passage comes after he says the beast has leapt and already fallen. The irony of the ending is that while she is what he has missed, they would not have come together without his illusions. Perhaps he would even have been less obsessed by it had he not had May to feed it all this time. She ‘knows what it is’ before him because she achieves a consciousness of loss in dying.

From Wikipedia:

John Marcher, the protagonist, is reacquainted with May Bartram, a woman he knew ten years earlier, who remembers his odd secret: Marcher is seized with the belief that his life is to be defined by some catastrophic or spectacular event, lying in wait for him like a “beast in the jungle.” May decides to buy a house in London with the money she inherited from a great aunt, and to spend her days with Marcher, curiously awaiting what fate has in store for him. Marcher is a hopeless egoist, who believes that he is precluded from marrying so that he does not subject his wife to his “spectacular fate”.

He takes May to the theatre and invites her to an occasional dinner, but does not allow her to get close to him. As he sits idly by and allows the best years of his life to pass, he takes May down as well, until the denouement where he learns that the great misfortune of his life was to throw it away, and to ignore the love of a good woman, based upon his preposterous sense of foreboding.


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