‘In the Cage’, A Memorable Novella by Henry James

‘In the Cage’ by Henry James (1898) – 138 pages


mzi.ajcmgzft.340x340-75The novellas of Henry James are a good way into his fiction, and ‘In the Cage’, written in 1898 which is quite late in his career, serves as a gateway to his later major works.  The story here is more rooted and down-to-earth than in other of his work and is thus more approachable.

A nameless young woman works in a separate area of a grocery store, in the cage, preparing telegrams for customers. She is not really that young, perhaps about 25 years old.  She is engaged to Mr. Mudge, the grocery store manager.  Mr. Mudge is a man on the rise hoping to manage five grocery stores in the near future.  However our young woman is hopelessly bored with his scrupulous attention to all the mundane everyday details of running grocery stores.

So what does fascinate our young telegraph operator?  That would be her job or at least certain aspects of her job.  The people who send telegrams are the social elite of the town to arrange their hotels and travel plans.  Even though the lowly telegraph operators are supposed to feign disinterest in the subject matter of these telegrams, they can not help but find out intriguing and salacious details of their customers’ lives.   For example the married Lady Bradeen arranges assignations with the dashing young man Captain Everard.  They each often come separately in to the telegraph office to arrange the times and the places for their secret trysts.  The telegraph girl looks on in wonder at the illicit doings of these rich people.

 “What twisted the knife in her vitals was the way the profligate rich scattered about them, in extravagant chatter over their extravagant pleasures and sins, an amount of money that would have held the stricken household of her frightened childhood, her poor pinched mother and tormented father and lost brother and starved sister, together for a lifetime.”

Our young telegraph operator takes a personal interest in making sure all the details are correct in the telegrams which these two lovers send. She is captivated by their social lives and romance.

Captain Everard is not upper class himself.  One day our telegraph operator meets him on the street as she is going home from work.  They sit together on a bench and share some moments holding hands.

I will not reveal any more of the plot.

I’ve read a fair amount of the fiction of Henry James, and found ‘In the Cage’ refreshing in that it did not seem so precious or convoluted as some of his other work.  It is a straightforward story of a young working class woman being very practical in arranging her own future yet enamored of a style of life that is beyond her reach.

I must say that the four major characters in ‘In the Cage’, Mr. Mudge and Lady Bradeen and Captain Everard  and most of all the telegraph woman, are presented in dramatic and sympathetic fashion, and this short novel is a joy to read.


16 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve never heard of this one, I’d be interested to read James writing in a different style. I liked him when I was younger …


    • Hi Lisa,
      I suppose ‘In the Cage’ is not one of Henry James’ famous works, but there is a lot written about it on the Internet, and it seems to get above average reviews. Sometimes James is just a little, or a lot, too precious and convoluted for me, but ‘In the Cage’ avoids these stumbling blocks for the most part.
      I suppose the next James I read should be ‘Portrait of a Lady’, since that seems to be his most highly regarded.


      • Portrait is one that generates lots of discussion because the reasons for Isobel’s behaviour are ambiguous, and some people like to invest her with a feminist sensibility…


        • Interesting. I think ‘Portrait’ is also one that Henry James wrote at a fairly young age in 1879, and his earlier work is usually much more accessible than his later work. ‘In the Cage’ is somewhat an exception to that rule.


  2. I completely agree with you: James has a whole catalogue of novellas (or longish stories) that are gems in their own right. They rightly do not attract the attention that the novels do, but in their own way they might be even better — delicate insights that have much to say.


    • Hi Kevin,
      Yes, I saw your review of ‘Lessons of the Master’. I remember starting ‘Wings of the Dove’ a couple of times and both times giving up in frustration. Perhaps Henry James is a writer best taken in small doses, although his earlier work does seem more accessible.


  3. I’ve also never heard of this one, and I used to be a huge James fan (I don’t know dislike him, I just haven’t read him in years). This one does sound very good, and Kevin’s right that his novellas are often gems. Thanks for the review.


    • Hi Max,
      Interesting that at one time you were a huge fan of Henry James, don’t meet many of those any more. Early works like ‘Washington Square’ and ‘The American’ are relatively easy to like. I see works like ‘The Golden Bowl’ and ‘The Wings of the Dove’ as literary peaks to be climbed, but I’m not sure I want to take the trouble to climb them.


      • I read him loads as a teenager. Looking back that seems odd to me, but perhaps we simply change less than we often like to think we do. I always read a mix of literary fiction and more genre stuff.

        The film of The Wings of the Dove is very good. I saw it quite recently. Much better than the general Merchant Ivory fodder.


        • Hi Max,
          I’ll keep that in mind, the ‘Wings of the Dove’ movie. I’m always looking for good movies, and that might be a good approach to the novel.


  4. […] Blog Silver Threads erinnert zu Recht an den Klassiker Clayhanger von Arnold Bennett, und Tony’s Book World verspricht, dass In the Cage von Henry James lesens- und lohnenswert […]


  5. It sounds like I should have tried this one rather than The Turn of the Screw for my first Henry James experience! The Wings of the Dove is a stunning movie, not your typical period drama at all….


    • Hi Cathy,
      I don’t care for ‘The Turn of the Screw’ either. It seems ghostly and convoluted and is hard to follow. My best experiences with Henry James have been the early novel ‘Washington Square’, ‘In the Cage’, and ‘The Aspern Papers’.


      • I was really disappointed by The Turn of the Screw. I was in Italy, and there wasn’t a lot of choice in the bookshop (this was pre Kindle, when I was always running out of books to read when travelling) and I thought, ooh, Henry James, I love his stuff… I found it hard to believe that it was the same author.
        Fortunately the edition paired it with The Aspern Papers, which I thought was brilliant (LOL possibly influenced by actually reading it in Venice)


        • Hi Lisa,
          I really can’t understand why they always mention ‘The Turn of the Screw’ as one of his main works. I do want to read ‘Portrait of a Lady’ if I could find the time.


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