“What would it have made of me?” The Unlived Life of Spencer Brydon in Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2012

16 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents


The Author

The Period: American Realism (1865-1910)

Plot Summary

Towards an interpretation


List of Works Cited


“The Jolly Corner” is one of the last stories written by Henry James, in the famous style of his final years. The story shows the “complexity of his mind” through which his unique style developed. It also shows many connections to the author’s own experiences. Like Spencer Brydon, James has also spent many years in Europe, and it can be argued that he also at some point felt haunted by his past and was concerned with the question of the unlived life. [1]

This paper will be trying to analyze and interpret the story on the basis of several secondary articles. As the theme of the “unlived life” in the text is mentioned by many critics, this will also be the focus of the analysis in this paper.

First, the paper will provide some biographical information about Henry James, as well as background information on the literary period of American Realism, for which he played an important role. After a short plot summary, I will offer my own interpretation of the text.

The Author

When he was young, Henry James wanted to be a “literary master” in the European sense. His style of writing was very elaborate and his characters were very sophisticated – in contrast to the vernacular style made popular by Mark Twain. Although his writing did not make him rich, he could live from it. His work includes tales, novellas, novels, plays, autobiographies, criticism, and much more. In the time between the world wars, literary taste in America achieved a new stage of sophistication, and so James’s work had a big influence and was widely recognized. Today he is regarded one of America’s most important novelists and critics.[2]

Henry James was born on April 15, 1843 in New York City. His father, a philosopher and religious visionary, often took his family to Europe because he wanted his children to receive a “sensuous education”. James developed a strong interest in literature which intensified in his late teens. At the age of 21, he started writing for some of America’s major journals such as Atlantic Monthly and North American Review. After a long period of traveling back and forth between Europe and America, he finally decided to settle down in England in 1876. In A Small Boy and Others (1913), an autobiographical work, the author writes about an “obscure hurt” in his back which might be a reason for his tendency to “observe rather than participate”.

Henry James lived and worked alone all his life. Although he was a very sociable person with many correspondences, and also knew many of his remarkable contemporaries very well, he reserved his emotions and inspiration for what he described as the “sacred rage” of his art.

According to his biographer, Leon Edel, James’s career can be divided into three parts. In the first part, the author dealt mainly with the “international theme” of Americans in Europe (and, sometimes, Europeans in America) in works such as The Portrait of a Lady (1881). The second part of his career was dedicated to experiments with various themes and forms: novels about the social and political currents of the 1870s and 1880s, theater works, and also shorter stories that deal with the relationship between artists and society (e.g. “The Great Good Place”, 1900) and psychological themes (e.g. “The Jolly Corner”, 1908).

In the so-called “major phase”, his last period, James returned to his international themes with several highly elaborate works such as The Ambassadors (1903).

Obeying the advice given to his fellow authors by himself to “dramatize, dramatize, dramatize”, Henry James retreated more and more from a controlling author to invisibility in his work. Through this process of “rather showing than telling”, the readers were forced to interpret the meaning of his stories on their own; there was more objectivity. Today, James’s objective narrative technique is widely used in literature.

The author also wrote a lot of criticism, about his own work as well as that of others. In the essay “The Art of Fiction” (1884) he explains his fundamental aesthetic ideas.

Because America was unwilling to enter World War I for so long, Henry James decided to become a British subject and engaged himself in war relief work in 1915 and 1916. He was awarded the British Order of Merit shortly before his death.


[1] Any additional information given in this section is taken from “A Note on ‘The Jolly Corner’”.

[2] The information given in this section is completely taken from The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


“What would it have made of me?” The Unlived Life of Spencer Brydon in Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”
University of Innsbruck
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what, unlived, life, spencer, brydon, henry, james’s, jolly, corner”
Quote paper
Theresa Rass (Author), 2012, “What would it have made of me?” The Unlived Life of Spencer Brydon in Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/263322


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