“In the Cage,” a realist novella, was first published during what is known as Henry James’s ‘middle period.’ In this phase of his writing, James focused on political and social themes rather than on his more typical explorations of the nature of American consciousness set in Europe.
“In the Cage” is the story of an unnamed young woman who works in a telegraph office in London and is engaged to a successful grocer, Mr. Mudge. Longing for the higher-class position her family once held, she spends her long workdays speculating about the lives and circumstances of her wealthy customers, based on clues she derives from the encoded words of their telegraphs. A dashing young wealthy couple in the telegraph office especially captures her fancy. Surmising that this pair—Lady Bradeen, a married woman, and Captain Everard, a bachelor—are having an illicit relationship, the telegraphist becomes preoccupied with developing a narrative about them based on the numerous frantic telegraphs through which the two orchestrate their meetings. The telegraphist focuses especially on Captain Everard, who, she feels, appreciates her intimate and perceptive understanding of his situation. Mr. Mudge, undeterred, continues his entreaties for the telegraphist to transfer to an office closer to his grocery store, and she delays this commitment. Captain Everard and Lady Bradeen’s affair seems to become more and more precarious, and the telegraphist tracks the case fervently, suffering deeply when weeks go by with few or no visitations from Captain Everard. Finally, just when it seems the relationship will be exposed, the telegraphist is able to help the captain retrieve an incriminating document, using her obsessive memory for the bits of information she has gathered about the couple. After this narrow avoidance of scandal, Lady Bradeen’s husband dies, and she and the captain are on their way to a legitimate relationship. Upon hearing this news, the telegraphist resolves abruptly to join Mr. Mudge and the marriage and home he has offered her, and the story ends.
One reason that “In the Cage” is significant in James’s oeuvre is that its main character has to work for a living; this novella thus offers evidence for what John Carlos Rowe has called “the other Henry James,” the novelist who sympathizes with financial hardship and class oppression. “In the Cage” explores in particular the changing position of women in fin de siècle London and the dangers of exposure inherent in the far more public role the New Woman could play, especially when she was required to work for a living. “In the Cage” has also been touted as an exploration of the artistic consciousness. Critics such as Leon Edel and L. C. Knights contend that the telegraphist’s experiences represent the plight of the artist. In this light, the artist (who may be James himself) is fated to observe the world from behind bars that prevent him or her from acting in the world, but this position allows the artist to concoct representations of it from an alternate perspective.
A final important theme of the novella is the nature of knowledge and information. The story illustrates both a modern, technological form of information dissemination, the telegraph, and the kind of subjective, inductive knowledge gathering of which the telegraphist is exceptionally capable. In this novella, this combination is dangerous, an invitation to scandal. This anxiety prefigures the interest and concern that early 20th-century writers continued to have with the spread of new technologies. “In the Cage” not only presents the issue of knowledge thematically but also conveys it stylistically: James’s characteristically ambiguous style of writing—a precursor, many critics claim, to the literary style of Modernism—necessitates the same interpretive acuity that the telegraphist has so skillfully honed.
Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. Rev. ed. New York: Harper, 1985. James, Henry. In the Cage. London: Hesparus, 2002.
Knights, L. C. “Henry James and the Trapped Spectator.” In Explorations: Essays in Criticism Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century, 155–169. London: Chatto, 1946.
Rowe, John Carlos. The Other Henry James. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.