Henry James wrote his short story “The Jolly Corner” in 1906 after he returned to England from what would be his final visit to America, his native country. Published in 1908, “The Jolly Corner” centers on the psychological crisis of Spencer Brydon, who returns to his birthplace in New York City after more than three decades living abroad. He develops a “morbid obsession” with the man he might have become had he never left New York but rather, as his father wished, joined his family’s successful real estate enterprise. Convinced that this man – this alter ego – haunts his childhood home, Brydon stalks him and is horrified by the confrontation.
At age fifty-six, Spencer Brydon returns to New York City where he has come into possession of two real estate properties after his last remaining family members die. He hasn’t seen the city since he left at twenty-three to live in Europe and is unprepared for “the bignesses […] that at present assaulted his vision wherever he looked.” The looming skyscrapers and chaotic streets make his reunion with a childhood friend, Alice Staverton, all the more appealing. With her quiet, simple lifestyle, Alice shares Brydon’s nostalgia for “their
common, their quite far-away and antediluvian social period and order.”
Of his two new real estate concerns, Brydon has already sacrificed one to the profitable rental market, and its conversion into a “mass of flats” is underway. The other is his childhood home. Located on a “jolly corner” and the more valuable of the two properties, Brydon, nevertheless, has no intention of selling it or renovating it as an “apartment-house.”
While Brydon scorns profit-minded property developers, and he abandoned his father’s real estate empire for Europe’s old-world refinements, he discovers he has an aptitude for the building business. After witnessing a conversation between Brydon and a man from the construction firm hired for his conversion project, Alice remarks that Brydon “had clearly for too many years neglected a real gift.” She suggests that had he remained in New York, he would certainly have become a master of architectural design and made a fortune from it.
Brydon and Alice visit his family home on the jolly corner. For reasons he can’t explain, Brydon prefers to leave the grand, four-story house empty and untouched, except for weekly sweepings by the housekeeper, Mrs. Muldoon. They tour room after room of the stately building, and Alice notes it is a shame that such a place isn’t furnished and lived in. Three generations of Brydon’s family lived and died in the house. From his perspective, the very walls are infused with their presence, and he says that for him, the house is still inhabited.
Back at Alice’s house, Brydon tells her he is consumed by the question of how he would have “turned out” had he never left New York. He admits he has spent the last thirty years in Europe leading a frivolous, perhaps even scandalous life. Although he doesn’t admire the real estate barons who’ve made their fortunes trading in “beastly rent-values,” he wonders if he could have been one himself, but then suggests that would have made him monstrous, like the modern buildings themselves. Alice defends him, arguing that it is not the lost fortune he regrets, but the power. When Brydon wonders if she would have liked him as this billionaire alter ego, Alice asks how she could not
like him, but he is too preoccupied with himself to notice her implication. She then reveals she has seen Brydon’s alter ego twice in dreams.
While Brydon divulges his obsessive thoughts to Alice, he conceals his nightly prowls through his vacant family home. His fixation on the man he could have been has evolved into his conviction that that man, his alter ego, is lurking in the house. Every night he lights a candle and searches the dark rooms and passageways for hours, imagining himself a big game hunter. He often fancies he is close to his prey, but the fugitive always eludes him and even, Brydon feels, turns the tables, following Brydon during his hunt.
Presuming a break in his routine will unsettle his quarry, Brydon stays away from the house for three nights. On the night he returns, he perceives his other self no longer intends to flee but is waiting for him somewhere in the house’s dark recesses. Ascending to the uppermost rooms, Brydon sees that a door he has always left open is now shut. Certain his other self is behind the door, Brydon approaches and pauses. He cannot bring himself to push open the door and decides this is an act of “discretion” on his part, as he senses an appeal for pity from his alter ego.
After retreating to another room and debating with himself at length, Brydon finally resolves to leave without confronting the man he might have become. He descends the stairs, but, to his horror, sees his alternative self, waiting for him in the vestibule. The well-dressed figure covers his face with his hands, revealing two missing fingers. When he lowers his hands, Brydon gasps in revulsion, for “the bared identity was too hideous as his
” and too awful to accept. Brydon collapses, unconscious.
Brydon is roused by the sound of Mrs. Muldoon’s voice. He finds himself on the floor, with his head in Alice’s lap. She nods knowingly as Brydon relates his terrifying experience, and she says she saw him – the alter ego – in her dreams again that night. Although Brydon shudders at how dreadful he appeared, Alice says she pitied him, as his life had ravaged him. She understands that Brydon cannot reconcile himself with his vision of his alternative self, so she assures him that “he isn’t – you!” They embrace, finally professing their mutual love.
James leaves unresolved the question of who or what the figure Bryden sees is or signifies. As scholar Shalyn Claggett writes, the figure has variously “been identified as the shadow of capitalism, the victim of capitalism, an embodiment of analogy, […] Brydon’s hidden biracial self, and his closeted homosexual identity.” Critics also disagree on whether the story’s ending is happy or tragic.