Threats from Within in the Modern Ghost Story
Part 1: Unrealised Potential in The Jolly Corner, Henry James

‘The word ‘ghost’ is related to and originates in the German Geist, a word that Chambers Dictionary defines as ‘spirit, any inspiring or dominating principle.’’ With this definition in mind, the word ‘ghost’ laterally evokes a concept which dominates the psyche, and subsequently, its (the ghost’s) ontological existence. Within modernist literature, ghosts are firmly rooted within the mind. While Victorian texts focus on external threats, such as anxiety over the railway system in ‘The Signalman,’ modern ghost stories focus of internal threats, or threats internally perceived.

Unrealised potential: what could have been

“Ghosts, that is to say, move in to one’s head,”- Bennet and Royal

In the nineteenth century, ghosts became internalized projections of the psyche. Henry James’s 1908 ghost story ‘The Jolly Corner’ is a classic example of this. 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.” The second, larger structure is now going to be renovated into a big apartment building. The piece can be read as the tale of a troubled individual whose fears manifest as a spectral entity within the empty house. The ethereal masculine ‘Other’ within the story embodies Brydon’s anxieties concerning unexplored life-choices.

By the composition of the story in 1908, New York had become modernised, a place of ‘dreadful multiplied numberings.’ Brydon’s childhood memories of New York have been usurped and disrupted. In encapsulating anxieties over external developments, the text creates tension between modernity and tradition, (a topic of exploration in many Victorian texts), while Brydon’s disgust over the landscape also conveys internalised psychical anxiety over the self, gender and sexuality. Consequently, ‘The Jolly Corner’ forges a bridge between Victorian and Modern ghost stories.

Masculine signifier and feminine spirit

According to Luke Thurston, ‘the opposition between masculine signifier and feminine ‘spirit’ structures the underlying topography of ‘The Jolly Corner.’’ In light of this, the text can be read as an emotional battle between the masculine and feminine properties of New York and ‘The Jolly Corner.’ Brydon lacks emotional investment in his modernised, and therefore masculine, property, the flats in which he spends so little time. The house on the Jolly Corner, with all its feminine touches, bears much more significance to him:

“breaking through the mere gross generalisation of wealth and force and success, a small still scene where items and shades, all delicate things, kept the sharpness of the notes of a high voice perfectly trained, and where economy hung about like the scent of a garden.”

While the modernised flats represent ‘gross generalisation,’ the house where Brydon grew up holds unique feminine qualities. Like the Garden of Eden, it becomes a sanctuary, instilled with an angelically ‘high voice.’

Brydon’s masculine impulses, ‘dormant in his own organism,’ begin to emerge at the construction site of his property. Despite its ‘vulgar and sordid’ nature, Brydon embraces the work, climbing ladders, walking planks and handling materials. The scene recalls child’s play, as though Brydon is embodying a fictional character.

‘The childish masquerade of male ‘authority’ thus performed by Brydon when at his modern property clearly results from the fact that in the location he feels wholly alienated from his true identity,’ – Thurston.

Brydon’s true identity, then, is covertly feminine, or, following the argument of Eric Savoy, ‘tormented by a homosexual tendency that is perhaps unfulfilled, perhaps furtive.’ The phantom in ‘The Jolly Corner’ exists because Brydon cannot fully know himself. Following his reunion with Alice Staverton, unsure of his sexual identity or place in society, Brydon begins to muse on the latent aspects of his character. ‘If he had but stayed at home he would have anticipated the inventor of the sky-scraper,’ phallic symbols in themselves; according to the narrator’s logic, if Brydon had but stayed at home, he would have become an overtly masculine figure, a different person all together

Donna Przbylowicz suggests that in Henry James’ work ‘one is left with the feeling that they are not quite satisfied…and are still searching for the meaning of events.’ To summarise, the ghost is a projection of the confusion and anxiety which exists within the mind of the protagonist; a manifestation of his unrealised potential.

Pick up your copy of The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories to read the full collection of stories discussed in this blog.