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"In the Cage"

This romantic novella about an anonymous young telegraphist is an obvious starting point for attempts to reread James's fiction in the light of new technologies and media emerging during the late nineteenth century. "In the Cage" makes accessible parallels between the nineteenth-century telegraph and late twentieth-century communications technologies, such as the World Wide Web. Perhaps this tale therefore needs to take its place alongside "Daisy Miller" (1878), "The Turn of the Screw" (1898), and The Portrait of the Lady (1881) as one of the key texts by which James is introduced to new students.

Modernist subjectivity
"In the Cage" offers an impressive representation of consciousness pervaded and constructed by interaction with a machine environment. The story shows the telegraph subtly permeating the protagonist's experience - mentally, physically and socially.

The tale can be read using a familiar opposition:

  • technology as a form of dehumanisation - desensitising, materialistic, and mechanical;
  • technology as a creative opportunity - contributing to the development of James's own late style and subjects, and providing the basis for the telegraphist's romance.

"In the Cage" shows the telegraphist mostly at the counter, away from the sounder (the heart of the machine, housed in a cage within the cage). While she is not literally penetrated by the machine, the story nevertheless shows her connection via the telegraph to a network of information. This happens on social and psychic levels:

  • In order for her to send messages she must be fluent in Morse code, whose sound fills her workspace.
  • She seems to acquire new intuitive abilities by virtue of her role as medium - she "found her divinations work faster and stretch further" (846).
  • This increased sensitivity is clearly a result of intimate proximity to the machine. Fighting to attain an identity for herself despite her circumstances, the protagonist likes to think it's because she's a lady, not a common shop-girl, that she is peculiarly sensitive in the role of medium. The tale allows the reader to share these feelings, but also shows them to be in large part a romantic fantasy.

The tale illustrates James's interest, not in technology as novelty, but in technology in advanced stages of diffusion through the layers of self, society and culture. The telegraph was no longer a new technology by the 1890s. Thus in "Telegraphic Realism: Henry James's In the Cage" (2000) Richard Menke argues that James recasts the telegraph, used by Trollope and other mid-Victorian writers as a figure for realism, into a figure for modernism.

"In the Cage" shows the blurring, not the collapse, of boundaries between human and machine that Donna Haraway describes in her famous "Cyborg Manifesto" (1991). The story works within a humanist frame of reference; James cannot be claimed as a signed-up posthumanist.