The Effect on People of Life in the City

Modernists like Henry James viewed the rise of the metropolitan as the death of culture and identity and an increase in isolation and uncertainty. His short story “The Jolly Corner,” explores the negative influences that the city holds over the human psyche. He compares the old European standards to new American ideals. He uses the themes of identity, isolation and alienation, and the conscious and unconscious mind to drive his stance against the rise of the metropolitan forward and convince his audience that the rise of the metropolitan is leading to the death of culture, tradition, and encouraging detrimental qualities that go against human behavior. His clear and direct psychoanalysis of the human mind serves as tool for him to prove that his stance is justifiable as well as giving the audience the tools to come to the same conclusion as well.

The first hit that James takes at the rising metropolitan is a comparison between the old/traditional way of life and the new/modern way of life and the effect it has on Spencer Brydon. After living in Europe for thirty-three years, Brydon returns to his family home in New York City to renovate the properties he has inherited. In his introduction to Brydon, James is quick to make his stance on the city the first thing his character reflects on.

“He found what he never would have imagined… the “swagger” things, the modern, the monstrous, the famous things… they were as so many set traps for displeasure…” (James, 372)

What James does here is that he presents Brydon as an American who’s spent more time abroad in Europe than he has living in America and when he does come back almost everything has changed from what he remembers. In essence it’s almost as if he’s a foreigner in his own country. James provides hints of the “old” New York City that serves as a solace to Brydon. First it’s his family home that he calls “the jolly corner” as a homage to the memories of the old times and his past when everything was “simpler” and when he talks about his friend, Alice Staverton.

“… She was exquisite for him as some pale pressed flower (a rarity to begin with), and, failing other sweetnesses, she was a sufficient reward of his effort. They had communities of knowledge (this discriminating possessive was always on her lips) of presences of the other age…” (James, 374)

This juxtaposition of the Old World (Europe) that’s centered on following tradition, beauty, romanticism and the New World (America) which is centered on modernity, industrial expansion, corruption, and new ways of thinking politically and ethically all come into play with Brydon’s character. He despises the changes of the modern city and only finds peace in objects of antiquity. Not only does James split Brydon’s personality internally but also, he cleverly uses Brydon’s doppelgänger to create a physical representation of the divide within him.

The next major hit that James takes at the city is the juxtaposition of Brydon’s conscious self and Brydon’s unconscious self showing how the city destroys the humane aspects of a person and turns them into industrialized monsters. In the beginning Brydon realizes that he could have become a promising businessman if he had stayed in New York City and became a part of the modern industrial movement.

“He had lived his life with his back so turned to such concerns and his face addressed to those of so different an order that he scarce knew what to make of this lively stir, in a compartment of his mind never yet penetrated, of a capacity for business and a sense for construction. These virtues, so common all round him now, had been dormant in his own organism.” (James, 373)

This is what starts his rumination on the “what if” factors of his life. When Alice tells him about his alter ego he decides that he wants to see what his modern American counterpart is like and when he does, he’s so appalled that he faints.

“Horror, with the sight had leapt into Brydon’s throat… for the bared identity was too hideous as his… that face, in it dismay and denial, falling straight from his height of sublimity. It was unknown, inconceivable, awful, disconnected from any possibility -! He had been “sold,” he inwardly moaned… Such an identity fitted his at no point… the face was the face of a stranger.” (James, 397)

When Brydon is presented with the harsh reality of what the city turns a person into he’s astonished. His doppelgänger serves as his own version of Frankenstein, a creature so hideous that he immediately distances himself from it. With the alter ego, James presents the idea that you can do one of two things when it comes to the city: accept corruption or isolate yourself and be saved, those are the options.

James uses a variety of themes as tools to develop his stance on the corruptness of the modern city. The first and most important theme he uses is identity. Brydon’s identity is conflicting externally and internally. Externally Brydon is confronted with changes in his setting and a physical representation of what he would have become if he had stayed in America. Brydon’s doppelgänger is James’ way of physically describing and representing how the city erases all of the “Old World” values and corrupts and contorts the human mind. Brydon’s doppelgänger has “sold” himself to industrialization, which in turn led him to become “monstrous” and maimed however, since Brydon escaped the city’s corruption when he moved to Europe thirty-three years ago, he was “saved”. However when he returns home he finds himself isolated from this “new” society.

The next theme that James employs is isolation and alienation. Isolation refers to something that can be voluntary or involuntary and characterized by setting oneself apart with the option of being able to reintegrate oneself back into society. Brydon’s decision to move can be characterized as a form of isolation since he chose to live apart from American society however upon his return he finds himself alienated from American society. Alienation refers to the involuntary exclusion of a person from society for reasons like stigma against an illness, race, class, or in Brydon’s case his reluctance to be a part of the modern city. The last major theme that James connects to the city is the debate of reality against illusion. The city is made up of illusions and subconscious and unconscious desires. People can come from anywhere and become anyone. Since this is the case that also means that the city in essence if filled of alter egos making it a dangerous place because you wouldn’t know who or what is truly genuine. In an older society like Europe, people are who they say they are because there are traditional structures set like the class system. Everything has its place and everything has a realness to it. The alter ego also affects the psychology of the human mind as well.

James’ main motive is to explore the modern city’s effect on human mindset and how it corrupts the human psyche. James incorporates the idea of the “stream of consciousness” as well as incorporating Sigmund Freud’s theory on the degrees of consciousness: the conscience mind, the preconscious mind, and the unconscious mind. The stream of consciousness refers to the thoughts that flow through a character’s mind. James connects this to Freud’s varying degrees of consciousness and how Brydon’s train of thought is constantly disturbed and altered as the story progresses. James narrows in on the unconscious mind, a place where dark desires, unpleasant feelings, and truths reside and how if they rise up they cause a tremendous clash with the conscious mind a place where current thoughts and feelings reside.

So if James portrays the city as a place where the unconscious mind rises to the surface and corrupts the “pure” human consciousness then as the audience we would infer that the best option is to stay away from the city to maintain a “pure” stream of consciousness and avoid corruption. Once that consciousness is corrupted however, we as humans are now compromised beings living in a state of surrealism. This is the grand current that connects us to Brydon’s character and how James wants us to think in regards to the city. This is why he wants us to oppose the city because it all leads to the “death of humanity”.

Henry James’ writing was heavily influenced by his interest in psychology and the stream of consciousness as well as the unconscious desires a person has beneath the surface. In “The Jolly Corner”, James takes an anti-metropolitan stance and successfully argues for the case that the city and industrial advancement is what negatively impacts the subconscious minds of men, thus altering their conscious state turning them into “monsters”. James definitely does not want his audience to “get with the times” and vehemently argues against it by using psychological theory as a background to explain and justify his beliefs to make his argument against the city more convincing.


  1. James, Henry. “The Jolly Corner.” The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction by Henry James, Bantam Books, 1981, pp. 370–403.
  2. Cherry, Kendra, and Steven Gans. “What Are Freud’s 3 Levels of Mind?” Verywell Mind,