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Henry James’ The Jolly Corner: A Two-Minute Analysis of the Classic Ghost Story

The last of James’ ghost stories, written six years before his death, is widely considered his best, after “Turn of the Screw.” “The Jolly Corner” is rife with personal details: it was penned thirty-three years after James’ settlement in Europe, and three years after his first return to the United States since his decision to become an expatriate. During his decades abroad he had lost his favorite sister, a brother, and his parents, and the quaint, bourgeois New York that he had left was now a thundering metropolis marred by skyscrapers and occupied by slum dwellers and robber barons. James found himself overwhelmed by the change, disturbed by questions, and haunted by self-doubt. He returned to Britain shaken and troubled: “If I were to live my life over again, I would be an American,” he said – probably as he was writing this story – “I would steep myself in America, I would know no other land. I would study its beautiful side. The mixture of Europe and America which you see in me has proved disastrous.”
The story follows a man with a nearly identical problem: he too has been abroad for thirty-three years (an adulthood which confesses was “scandalous” – spent worshipping “strange gods” and wasting his talent and potential), has lost his family to death, and is left with their empty real estate and an old friend – a devoted woman who, waiting for his return, has never married or had a career of her own. What would be an otherwise melancholic meditation on aging, time, and death takes an engrossing turn when the protagonist begins to sneak into the house at night, effectively haunting it – roaming the dark corridors for hours, sometimes putting his candle down and seeing how far he can go without it. Fixated with the world of the past, memory, and imagination – the world of the Dead – he increasingly abandons the world of the present, sensation, and reality – the world of the Living – and begins to repeat the pattern of his life: running away from self-awareness.

Throughout the story – one with profound similarities to the “haunter-as-haunted” themes of “The Ghostly Rental” – the protagonist is obsessed with learning who he would have been had he stayed in New York with his family. An apparent knack for real estate has lead him and his dutiful friend to believe that he would have been a robber baron worth millions. The chief mission of his haunting his family home – aside from a kind of sacrificial, ritualistic homage to his long-dead family – is to find this doppelgänger, whom he senses to be hiding in the house – a phantom of his could-have-been self. James weaves a brilliant psychological tale with impressionistic prose, proto-Jungian imagery, and foggy, almost therapeutic free associations.
Stalking the dark corridors of his childhood home, the middle-aged man appears to slip seamlessly into states of regression: imagining himself to be an archeologist probing the interior of the Great Pyramid, a brave game-hunter lurking through the jungle for a beast at bay (his elusive alter-ego), a predatory panther with empowering night vision, and a knight-errant confronted with a black-armored adversary at the threshold of a treasure. But as his ramblings continue, his deeply held sense that he is flushing out the craven alter-ego who won’t dare show his face begins to weaken: he feels the brush of air on his neck, notices closed doors which had been opened and vice versa, and has the increasing sense that it is he, not the alter-ego, who is the prey – he, not the alter-ego, who stands to learn a lesson.
This parable of a man desperate to reconnect with his lost chances – lost family, lost childhood, lost friendships – fittingly has its foundations in James’ father, who was a theologian and a devotee to Emmanuel Swedenborg’s supernatural mysticism. Swedenborg’s philosophies “explored the unmanageable energies of nature and the extremes of human consciousness” One of Swedenborg’s more frightening theories was that of the “vastation” – a supernatural encounter with your dark alter-ego, your evil self – a demonic Id that attacks your areas of weakness and which must be defeated in order to assimilate the warring forces of the ego.
Henry James Sr almost had a mental breakdown when he experienced his vastation, calling it “a perfectly insane and abject terror, without ostensible cause, and only to be accounted for, to my perplexed imagination, by some damned shape squatting invisible to me within the precincts of the room, and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life.” Some scholars believe that in returning to New York, James the Younger believed that he had finally his own vastation from his own evil doppelgänger. Whether this is true or not, the following story has given readers and critics much to praise, but I suspect that it may ultimately have been an act of cathartic therapy for James – of mourning for his American Self, a person whom he never met but dearly wished he could.
The story’s protagonist, Spencer Brydon, returns to his family home – the Jolly Corner – after 33 years abroad. The city has changed dramatically, and as his parents and siblings are all dead, he is burdened with a heavy nostalgia as he walks through the dark house by himself. His only friend is Alice, a woman who would likely have been his wife had he remained at home, who has put her life and ambitions on pause, waiting for him to come home. His task is to oversee the renovations of this house and another property, which have been funding his depraved lifestyle in Europe. As he manages the projects, he notices an inborn talent for business, and wonders what his life would have been like if he had stayed in New York and been a real estate tycoon instead of a self-indulgent traveler. Alice also notices this talent and seems enamored by the idea of what he could have been. Drawn magnetically to the Jolly Corner, he begins to prowl the hallways at night in an imaginative search for his lost alter-ego – a reclusive presence he terms his Black Shadow. Each night he lights a candle and drifts through the rooms where he grew up, sensing the presence of something – the echoes of the past – shifting around him, closing doors, blowing at his candle, brushing against him.
One night – described in lushly impressionistic prose – Brydon becomes more part of the house than ever before, deeply drinking from its atmosphere, imagining himself a raider of pyramids or a hunter of tigers. In the grey, early morning light, he finally meets his doppelgänger in the entry way, barely illuminated by the transom and sidelights. His Black Shadow is dressed in posh eveningwear but holds his hands before his face, revealing two missing fingers on his writing hand (he imagines they have been shot off in a hunting accident). Mesmerized, Brydon confronts the figure, who suddenly rushes and overpowers him with “a rage of personality before which [his] own [personality] collapsed.” In the morning he awakens in Alice’s lap: she found him unconscious in the entryway after having learned of his nightly ritual (sensing that he was in danger, she went to the house). Having heard Brydon’s description of his Black Shadow, she expresses pity for the maimed ghost and pity for the ghost whom she is now cradling in her lap. Both of them sense the profundity of their loss – Brydon of his possible past, and Alice of their missed marriage – and lean on one another for solace.
Brydon’s journey into his past is an archetypal myth that calls to mind Carl Jung’s psychological theories and the literary criticism and myth studies of Joseph Campbell. There are three chief interpretations of this story, each concerning the identity of the doppelgänger, and all three involve a careful study of myth theory and the monomyth, or the so-called “hero’s journey,” derived from Campbell’s assertion that all stories have – deep in their core – the same basic plot. Campbell, who was a student of Jung, himself a student of Swedenborg and Freud, believed that all stories had the same twelve-step narrative that involves accepting a call to adventure from the Known World into the Unknown World, crossing a variety of thresholds (barriers, mountains, city gates, literal doors, forests, deserts, etc.), forming allies, adopting a mentor, resisting perils, coming to a shocking revelation (called the Abyss – a moment of literal or metaphorical death and rebirth), a transformation, an act of atonement, and a return to the Known World with a gift (a new insight, power, worldview, skill, or ability).
So far, if we think carefully, this describes the story accurately. Of course, sometimes these tales end tragically, and the gift may be a curse. We think of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Moby-Dick, and The Great Gatsby where the journey into the Unknown is survived by one character who returns “a sadder man but wiser now.” This is arguably Brydon’s experience as he returns to the Unknown World of new New York, and crosses the threshold into the haunted house. Brydon’s experience is one of peaks and valleys – the journey of a hero. He experiences almost manic-depressive shifts in perspective, ultimately seeking to flee the Living world of the present/experience/reality for the Dead world of the past/memory/imagination.
Like James, who claims to have regretted his transatlantic experience and longed to go back in time and live on one side of the Atlantic, Brydon has come to both revile and envy his alter-ego – this part of his identity that was starved of a future. He pitches between a predatory sense of wanting to track, pin, dominate, and vanquish his self-doubt, and a terrifying fear of being prey for the lurking power of his doppelgänger. Like Dante, Christ, and Orpheus, Brydon descends into hell – perhaps literally, although this is purely open to interpretation – in search of his lost childhood, his lost family, and his lost life. Like Orpheus (and unlike Christ and Dante), he seems to clutch at it – to feel it – but ultimately has it torn away from him. When he confronts his Black Stranger, he has reached the Abyss – the moment of literal or metaphorical death – and is resurrected in Alice’s lap: an image which effortlessly calls to mind the Pieta: sculptures of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Christ in her lap. And in many respects Brydon is something of a Christ figure, though mostly in his own mind.
This brings us to the psychological implications of Brydon’s Campbellian adventure. As I previously mentioned, Campbell was inspired by the work of Jung – previously a Freudian – who was himself a devotee of the 18th century mystic and spiritualist Swedenborg. Henry James Sr. was a Swedenborgian, and like Brydon, experienced a moment in the Abyss. One night he nearly had a mental breakdown after encountering a “vastation” – a visit from his evil alter-ego, and encounter which purged him of spiritual perversity and pollution, leaving him clean to be reassimilated. Freud would refer to this alter-ego – this primitive, selfish, bestial persona – as the Id, and Jung would characterize this persona as the Shadow. James gives it a similar characterization as the “black stranger.” In Jungian analysis, a figurative meet-and-greet with the Shadow has great potential for reconstruction of a fragmented Ego – a concept clearly related to Swedenborg’s vastation, an experience said to be unnerving, but which was ultimately a necessity for growth. One online source aptly summarizes the “encounter” phase:
The encounter with the shadow plays a central part in the process of individuation. Jung considered that ‘the course of individuation…exhibits a certain formal regularity. Its signposts and milestones are various archetypal symbols’ marking its stages; and of these ‘the first stage leads to the experience of the SHADOW’. If ‘the breakdown of the persona constitutes the typical Jungian moment both in therapy and in development’, it is this which opens the road to the shadow within, coming about when ‘Beneath the surface a person is suffering from a deadly boredom that makes everything seem meaningless and empty.
The following stage after an encounter with the Shadow should be assimilation – a merger wherein the dark parts of one’s self are accepted, identified, incorporated, and thereby controlled. Alice does this on Brydon’s behalf by pitying the Black Stranger (though not without a heavy dose of sexual overtones, implications of fantasy/roleplaying, and suspect motives), but Brydon refuses, and this does not bode well for his development. Like Henry James Sr., he has confronted his dark side, but unlike him, he refuses to accept it, denying their similarity until forced to by Alice.
Brydon’s descent into the dark house – his unsolicited role as resident ghost – is particularly interesting psychologically. It is a practice in regression: his thoughts are peppered with boyish fantasies, boyish fears, and boyish bravado. He fancies himself a hunter, a panther, an explorer, a knight. He leaves the candle behind and tries to brave the dark. He dashes in and out of the house, pitching between childish fear and waggish arrogance. He is little more than the boy he was long ago, and in that respect, he IS a ghost: frozen in time, refusing to own his negligence, and deeply mired in bouts of denial and regression. It is telling that he never clues us into what made his father curse him, why he fled the country, why he has never returned until now, what “strange gods” he worshipped, and what “scandalous” adventures he had in Europe.
Brydon wants to pretend that none of that happened – that he is still a boy playing “pirates” in the dark. His house symbolizes his mind: a compartmentalized structure filled will twisting corridors, shut doors, and hidden recesses. His hero’s quest is to flush out the truth, confront it, identify it, mollify it, pacify it, and conquer. But he doesn’t. He hesitates to open the shut doors (read: to confront his repressed memories/feelings), and ultimately the phantom of the Truth must come to him, guarding the front door as if to say “that’s enough playtime for you – gallivanting all over the place like a damn child – you can’t leave here until you face me – face what you did – face who you are.” And herein lie the promised three interpretations – interpretations informed by Campbellian myth theory, Swedenborgian theology, and Jungian psychoanalysis: firstly, the Stranger represents who Brydon WOULD have become. Had he stayed in America he would have been a violent robber baron with a sick soul. This is the traditional interpretation, but it has sense been called into question by most critics for being too simplistic.
Secondly, the Stranger represents who Brydon IS. He is looking into a mirror like Dorian Gray or William Wilson, reviles what he sees, and is stunned into stupefaction and denial. Brydon IS the Stranger. He IS selfish, careless, and corrupt. He abandoned his family, abandoned Alice, and abandoned his potential.
Thirdly, the Stranger is what Brydon WILL now become. Having run to Alice (who can be accused of being a manipulative, passive-aggressive enabler) for maternal protection (note: James’ sister and sister-in-law were both named Alice, and his sister-in-law lived on Irving Street; there is certainly a cozy, feminine comfort in the name to James), she will stall his maturation and he will sour and rot in her overly protective embrace, not unlike Miles who is smothered by the governess’s (protective or punishing?) embrace.
Interpretations of Alice read her as both selfless and selfish, but overall my impression is one of a woman who resents being abandoned, left a childless spinster, and is teeming with conflicting emotions: anger, love, a desire for revenge, a desire for closeness. She will now “have” Brydon and not let him go. He is hers now, and he will never be free again. Or is she his natural harbor? Is he home at last? I personally find the most virtue in the second interpretation of the Stranger: Brydon is running away from the reality of his selfish life, and is traumatized by the lessons learned in the Abyss: that he is a near-sighted (read: self-absorbed), mutilated (read: spiritually blighted or undeveloped) monster (for commentary on the missing fingers and pince-nez, see the notes). This reading by its nature is more sympathetic to Alice – she was after all neglected by Brydon for 33 years – without making her a saintly martyr (more like someone with – as Jung would say – a Martyr Complex), or excusing her unavoidable possessiveness.
Ultimately, in my reading, “The Jolly Corner” is a tragedy of mythic proportions, following a man who went on a spiritual quest for redemption and forgiveness, hoping to abate his fears, fortify his ego, and leave New York a happier, satisfied man. His potential for growth is immense: he stands to identify and incorporate his dark side by acknowledging his selfishness, seeking the forgiveness of his departed family, and making things right in his world through the prescription of the Campbellian monomyth: call to adventure, crossing the threshold into the Unknown, facing challenges and forming alliances, finding a transfiguring revelation in the Abyss (confronting and assimilating his Shadow Self) in symbolic death to his old self and rebirth as a new man, transformation, atonement, and the ultimate return to the Known with a gift in tow.
Instead, Brydon claims to have been reborn – to have literally died and resurrected – but shows little sign of growth. Instead he is neurotic, flustered, and psychologically troubled. He rushes to Alice as a boy rushes to a mother proving that not very much has changed. Of course, he is now willing to accept Alice’s help, right? In my reading, this is not progress but regress: he has gone from adventurous boy to rebellious teen (for 33 years), and has fallen back into boyhood, and Alice is no closer to being his wife, for she has now become his Mother Mary. James said that he was kept awake all night by the horror of this story before he wrote it. I don’t think we are often kept awake by the horror of happy endings.
And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of James’ best ghost stories HERE!

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