The Jolly Corner – A Classic Ghost story by Henry James – A Review

Is your childhood home haunted? Chances are it is.  Imagine visiting it after many, many years.  Perhaps it’s empty, awaiting the next occupants, whoever they might be. While perambulating the confines, “ghostly sightings” are almost guaranteed.  In the den by the large picture window,  you decide to look out upon the spacious yard. You “see” yourself at the age of five running across the grass toward the swing set. The swing set is long gone, but it is here now.  You can even hear the creaking that accompanies the back and forth movements of the chains that attach to the seat of the swing. In the kitchen, you “hear” the whispers of that personal conversation you had with your mother over coffee. The stairs that lead down from the second floor bedroom still echo with the plodding of your younger brother, descending with excitement every Saturday morning. Cartoons were waiting for him on the large Zenith tube television. That monstrosity sat in the south corner of the living room.  Can you hear the crackling of its static when the programming ceased for the evening? Of course you can.  And I bet you can see your family, some still alive, others gone, but all are sitting around it, watching a program.

These are all figurative ghosts. But maybe there are literal ghosts lurking about. The ethereal remains of a lost grandmother? A deceased father?

Spencer Brydon finds himself in a similar situation to the above scenario. He is the main character in Henry James’s short story The Jolly Corner. He revisits his childhood home.  There, he is haunted by memories – and much more. See, Brydon takes the haunting a step further.  He is not merely haunted by the past. He is haunted by a life that could have been. He is haunted by the “ghosts” of  an alternative timeline. As a young man, he left this home in New York and traveled Europe, abandoning his family and his family fortunes. Upon returning to his childhood home at a more mature age, he contemplates what his life might have been life if he had stayed in this house and tended to the family business.  These contemplations manifest into “real” forms.  He meets the ghost of himself. The house is like a magic mirror that reflects an image of himself from an alternate past.  And the reflection he sees is ghastly!

Congratulations! If you were not familiar with the meat and bones of this story before, you are now. It is a short story, just under fifteen thousand words.  However, I’ve encountered analyses of this tale that are longer than the story itself. There’s analysis of themes such industrialization and social change. By 1908, the date The Jolly Corner was published, the effects of The Industrial Revolution were solidified in American culture, creating a thriving urban sprawl which yields rental profits for Spencer’s family.

This leads to analytical pieces on urban renewal – the competing values of land use in terms of economic value vs. personal value (Spencer has the opportunity to convert his childhood home into a profitable modern apartment complex. He refuses).  Of course, from a psychological perspective, writers and literary critics have contributed volumes of analysis. (Okay maybe “volumes” is a bit of an exaggeration.)  Henry James is the master of the psychological ghost story and literary analysts just love to dive into such themes as the “two selves” of Spencer and compare them to Freudian and Jungian constructs of the different parts of one’s personality.  They even go so far as dissecting Henry James’s psychological profile and comparing it to the inner struggles of  his character Spencer Brydon.

A ghost turned me onto this story. It is a ghost that helps narrate the story A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons. This narrator ghost is rather complex in nature, and here is not the time and place to describe him (in other words, I don’t now how to do so – ha!). But he reflects on his childhood home, particularly his basement, his “Jolly Corner”, the term borrowed from James.  Perhaps he still sees himself inhabiting that basement, even though he is long dead.  Or perhaps its more complex or even more simple than that. I’m forgetting, but the ghost explains the basic plot of The Jolly Corner. It sounded interesting HenryJamesBook to me.  I had in my possession the book The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers and Two Stories by Henry James. I had read The Turn of the Screw and wrote up a review back when. Did one of “the two stories” include “The Jolly Corner?” I checked and yippie! It did!  (Later I found it that it could be read online for free – https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Jolly_Corner ) And so I picked up my book and read the story.

Did I enjoy the story? I enjoyed the concept but loathed the reading process.  James’s sentences are so long and over-populated with phrases and commas that by the time I would reach the end, I had forgotten the subject of the sentence.  I had to reread and reread again. Sometimes after rereading a sentence several times I still didn’t have any idea as to what was being conveyed so I just moved along. My plan was to trudge through the story, then read all the cliff notes and go back and read the story again. Well I did manage to trudge through the story. I went online for help with the plot development, and then I reread SOME of the story. Good lord, I just couldn’t start the whole thing again.

I found the Turn of the Screw to be an easier read. But that too is complex. Sometimes I am a fan of the writing style of the days of yore and sometimes I’m not. I guess that is where MY duality fits in. Nevertheless, I appreciate this story’s contribution to the Haunted House genre. It has depth and awesome symbolism. While prowling his old house, Spencer encounters open doors that should have been closed, and closed doors that should have been open. Who opens and closed these doors?  He does, in his mind. They are doors to different parts of his memory and psyche.  Such a fitting scenario for a psychological haunted house story!

 

 

 

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