The Jolly Corner

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"The Jolly Corner"
Author Henry James
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Short story
Publication type Periodical
Publisher English Review
Media type Print (Magazine)
Publication date December 1, 1908

"The Jolly Corner" is a short story by Henry James published first in the magazine The English Review of December, 1908. One of James' most noted ghost stories, "The Jolly Corner" describes the adventures of Spencer Brydon as he prowls the now-empty New York house where he grew up. He encounters a "sensation more complex than had ever before found itself consistent with sanity."

Plot summary

Spencer Brydon returns to New York City after thirty-three years abroad. He has returned to "look at his 'property,'" two buildings, one his boyhood home on "the jolly corner." These properties have been the source of his income since the deaths of his family members. The second, larger structure is now going to be renovated into a big apartment building. Spencer finds he is good at directing this renovation, despite never having done this work before, suggesting that his innate ability for business was hiding deep within him unused. Spencer rekindles a relationship with old friend, Alice Staverton. Both comment on his "real gift" for business and construction which he also finds "vulgar and sordid." He starts to wonder who he would be if he had stayed in the U.S.

He starts to prowl the house at night to try to meet his American alter ego. 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.

Key themes

This story treats a theme of nearly universal interest: the "unlived life," the life a person might have had but didn't.

Attempts have been made to relate the story to Henry James' own life. Certainly there are some parallels between the expatriate Brydon and the expatriate James. But too close an identification probably lessens rather than enhances the story's significance. In particular, likening the ghost's two lost fingers with the "obscure hurt" that James experienced during his late teens may well be too reductive and simplistic.

Critical evaluation

Critics[who?] have almost unanimously agreed that "The Jolly Corner" is James' finest ghost story after only The Turn of the Screw. The story combines an interesting theme and suspenseful narration.

Critics[who?] have disagreed on whether Brydon will profit from his supernatural experience, or will only resume his rather selfish and non-contemplative existence. The more optimistic commentators[who?] believe that Brydon will have a more mature and perceptive life, especially with the help of Alice Staverton's unselfish love. James said that the idea for "The Jolly Corner" came to him suddenly and kept him awake all night. He wrote the story soon afterward and it seemed to him "a miraculous masterpiece."

Dramatic adaptations

A television version of the story was produced during 1975 with Fritz Weaver as Spencer Brydon and Salome Jens as Alice Staverton.


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