This article contains the summary and analysis of Henry James’ gothic ghost story The Jolly Corner (1908).
This article series provides a summary of The Jolly Corner, the ending or the twist and a short analysis.
Henry James (1843-1916) was an American Author of literary realism and literary modernism. But he has also written ghost stories, stories of the supernatural and the spiritual. His themes compose romance, the fear of marriage, the doppelgänger motif and of course the supernatural that subtly sneaks into real life, ever posing the question if the paranormal is real or not. Often with an unreliable narrator, told in the first person, the events can be explained either by the existence of a real ghost or something that the mind conjured up. His ghost story genre lies in the genre of Romance, where the magical co-exists with everyday life, which creates an eerie uncanny feeling. His stories are always based in the real world of human action, psychology and morality. It therefore is up to the reader to interpret the story as they wish, which can lead to wonderful lively discussions.
This article contains one of his ghost stories and deals with a haunting by a doppelgänger. The haunting of the ghosts reflects and represents the emotional feelings of the haunted persons.
The Jolly Corner (1908)
After been away for 33 years spending time in Europe living a selfish frivolous scandalous life, Spencer Brydon returns to America. There he has two properties, a building that is turned into an apartment building and the old house where he grew up which he calls The Jolly Corner. With his old friend Alice Staverton he ventures on a inspection of both buildings. ‘(…) it had been not the least of his astonishments to find himself able, in the spot, and though without a previous ounce of such experience, to participate with a certain intelligence, almost with certain authority.’ Also Miss Staverton had said ‘(…) that he had clearly for too many years neglected a real gift. If he had but stayed at home he would have anticipated the inventor of the sky-scraper. If he had but stayed at home he would have discovered his genius in time really to start some new variety of awful architectural hare and run it till it burrows in a gold mine.’ These words stayed with with.
The Jolly Corner is however completely empty, except for the ghosts. He doesn’t want to make any money out of it and he keeps it just the way it is, like a monument of the past. He has lived there for 23 years. His parents have lived and died there, and so did his sister and other kin. But he doesn’t want to live in it himself. Mrs. Muldoon, the housekeeper shows them round. But what if he had lived in it, stayed in America. ‘It was mere vain egoism, and it was moreover, if she lied, a morbid obsession. He found all things come back to the question of what he personally might have been, how he might have led his life and “turned out,” if he had not so, at the outs, given it up.’ He wonders if he could have been a millionaire and discusses it with Miss Staverton. But either way, she likes him for who he is. But Spencer wants to know who he might have been. ‘“He isn’t myself. He’s the just so totally other person. But I do want to see him,” he added. “And I can. And I shall.”’
So he secretly goes to the Jolly Corner to explore the house. ‘His alter ego “walked” – that was the note of his image of him, while his image of his motive for his own odd pastime was the desire to waylay him and meet him.’ So he roams the house, slowly, warily, restlessly. ‘With habit and repetition he gained to an extraordinary degree the power to penetrate the dusk of distances and the darkness of corners, to resolve back into their innocence the treacheries of uncertain light, the evil-looking forms taken in the gloom by mere shadows, by accidents of the air, by shifting effects of perspective; putting down his dim luminary he could still wander on without it, pass into other rooms and, only knowing it was there behind him in case of need, see his way about, visually project for his purpose a comparative clearness. It made him feel, this acquired faculty, like some monstrous stealthy cat; he wondered if he would have glared at these moments with large shining yellow eyes, and what it might’t verily be, for the poor hard-pressed alter ego, to be confronted with such a type.’
Spencer definitely feels like he is being followed on his expeditions through the house. So he turns abruptly, makes rapid recoveries of ground, he wheels about to see his face. Then one night he is ever more certain he’s on top of the stairs. ‘“He’s there, at the top, and waiting – not, as in general, falling back for disappearance. He’s holding his guard, and it’s the first time – which is proof isn’t it? that something has happened for him.” (…) – yes he takes it in, with its thus making clear to him that I’ve come, as they say, ‘to stay.’ He finally doesn’t like and can’t bear it, in the sense, I mean, that his wrath, his menaced interest, now balances with his dread. I’ve hunted him till he has ‘turned’: that, up there, is what has happened – he’s the fanged or the antlered animal brought at last to bay.”’
But hunting himself gives him mixed feelings and both the action of fight and flight, of fear. And soon he doesn’t feel such a powerful cat anymore, but the haunted. Then he comes across a closed door, a door that should have been open, for he wanted vistas to be clear. Was there another agent at work? And should he open it? He surrenders and leaves the door closed. He feels as if the image waited for him to depart. But there are more rooms to explore. But what if the door would open again? It would certainly end him. ‘The house, withal, seems immense, the scale of space again inordinate; the open rooms, to no one of which his eyes deflected, gloomed in their shuttered state like mouths of caverns; only the high skylight that formed the crown of the deep well created for him a medium in which he could advance, but which might have been, for queerness of color, some watery under-world.’
When he goes downstairs he shockingly sees that the vestibule doors gaped now wide open and ‘that the hinged halves of the inner door had been thrown far back. (…) If he had left that one open, hadn’t he left this one closed, and wasn’t he now in most immediate presence of some inconceivable occult activity?’
Then he sees someone standing there. ’It was as if there had been something within it, protected by indistinctness and corresponding in extent with the opaque surface behind, the painted panels of the last barrier to his escape, of which the key was in his pocket. (…) The penumbra, dense and dark, was the virtual screen of a figure which stood in it as still as some image erect in a niche or as some black-visored sentinel guarding a treasure. (…) It gloomed, it loomed, it was something, it was somebody, the prodigy of a personal presence. Rigid and conscious, spectral yet human, a man of his own substance and stature waited there to measure himself with his power to dismay.’
The figure is holding his hands before his face, and when he removes them, Spencer sees a horror. It made him monstrous and a stranger. ‘The harder pressed still, sick with the force of his shock, and falling back as under the hot breath and the roused passion of a life larger than his own, a rage of personality before which his own collapsed, he felt the whole visions turn to darkness and his very feet give way. His head went round; he was going; he had gone.’
The voice of Mrs. Muldoon brings him back, while his head is resting on the lap of Alice Staverton. ‘He had come back, yes – come back from further away than any man but himself had ever travelled.’ When Mrs. Muldoon and Alice have found him in a stupor beyond the vestibule, Alice was convinced he was dead. She further tells him that she saw him too in her dreams. The black dark him. But he isn’t you, she says. I could have been, but you aren’t him. But if he were him, she would have accepted him. And she pitied him, for he was unhappy, he has been ravaged. Spencer declares that although he has a million a year, he hasn’t her. And she replies that he isn’t him.
It’s a story, a reminisce of what hasn’t been, what could have been if taken another path. Spencer is bound to find out, but what he discovers is a horror. His doppelgänger is not what he thought he would be. He is obsessed by it and travels through the house, in the dark at night, like leaving the living and hunting an image, within a tomb of the dead. But this changes and he himself becomes as much the haunter as the haunted.
The house is a symbol of his mind, the door could represent the path not taken, closed and he’s afraid to look what’s behind it. The house is intact and feels like a tomb where all his family has lived and died in. He has to see his alter ego as dark, as monstrous and evil, to live with himself as he is now, for he’s afraid he could have been a much grander person. To have confirmation that he choose well. And Alice also confirms it, but she confirms him either way. There are no right or wrong paths, only different ones, but that does not mean it changes us tremendously. The path that isn’t taken, the union of Spencer and Alice however, still can happen, if you want to make it a happy ending. It’s a story that isn’t easy to read, for there is much hidden in the text and there are so much more psychological themes to find, especially when you take Henry James himself into mind, that it requires several re-readings.
Read more about Henry James:
- Henry James: The Turn of the Screw [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Altar of the Dead [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Beast of the Jungle [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: De Grey A Romance [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Ghostly Rental [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Great Good Place [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Last of the Valerri [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: Owen Wingrave [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Real Right Thing [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Romance of a Certain Old Clothes [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: Sir Edmund Orme [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Third Person [Summary & Analysis]
- Henry James: The Way It Came [Summary & Analysis]
- The Turn of the Screw (Henry James) review