Summary of Novella In the Cage
    provided by Esdale and Foust

In Henry James’s novella, In the Cage (1898), a young London telegraphist, about 25 years old, chooses and is also, perhaps, chosen to become involved in the affair of two London aristocrats. It’s unclear, as so much is in this story, whether the aristocrats recognize her participation, her knowledge, and employ her, or whether she just imagines, first, that she has knowledge, and next that knowledge necessarily involves a person. The telegraphist is unnamed. The aristocrats are Captain Philip Everard and Lady Bradeen. Lady Bradeen is married to Lord Bradeen, and the captain is unmarried. Both are young and remarkably handsome. The telegraphist is engaged to be married to a Mr. Mudge, a grocer who once worked in the store adjoining the relatively small telegraph and post office—the cage—in which our heroine receives and sends the “expensive feelings” of the rich. “Feelings,” but mainly instructions for the next assignation in the shifting geography of extra-marital (outside) love.

       Because a young woman’s career at a telegraph office was over when she married, and because the telegraphist felt Everard and Bradeen needed her to maintain the secrecy of their affair, she asks that Mudge allow their marriage to be delayed. But what marks the end of an affair? In the length and the breadth of the story, everything is deferred—consummation (of passion) and revelation (of secrets). Tension builds as, at least on the surface, the telegraphist entertains hope that Everard may desire her.

       Four things do happen to bring the story to an end, though, and the “outside” back “inside.” First, the telegraphist, through planned chance, meets Everard outside his apartment and they go for a walk in the park. She tells Everard that “she would do anything” for him. Second, a telegraph from Lady Bradeen to Everard is intercepted, a loss that threatens their secret affair. She helps him recover the lost telegraph. Then Lord Bradeen dies. Finally, from her friend Mrs. Jordan, a widow, the telegraphist learns that Lady Bradeen and Captain Everard will soon be married. Mrs. Jordan knows this because she too has recently become engaged, to a Mr. Drake, the new butler of Lady Bradeen. In Mrs. Jordan’s version of the story, the telegraphist plays no part. Realizing her lack of importance in this scene she announces that within a week she’ll be married.

       Though no doubt strange, the telegraph was no stranger to the imaginative faculties of the late 19th century; in most Western nations, the population’s thoughts were full of this machine made of words, the word made machine, and all the surrounding (and surveiling) software and hardware. There are numerous outlandish—at least to our wwworld—stories surrounding its capabilities and its functions, including mothers who wanted to telegraph soup to their soldier sons and a man who thought telegraph wires were tightropes to be run along by postal messengers straight out of the circus. Electrical language proved confusing as well; many thought the telegraph liquified the messages because words like “current” and “flow” were so often associated with the medium.

       At nineteenth century train stations, it was up to a policeman to allow a train to pass, based on the previous train’s relation to the established time table. In order to prevent head-on collisions, most railways were double lines. Those who linked the telegraph to the railroad sought to do away with these double lines, as the telegraph allowed for complete, accurate and constant surveillance of the railway lines. After the telegraph, double lines would only be used to deal with bulk traffic.

       Much of the communication in In the Cage has to do with the organization of railway trips and times, and, as the story progresses, we see the young telegraphist’s worlds—the “parallel lines” of her life in and out of the cage—become a singular world. When Everard claims that their walking in the park together is “quite different” from their being in the post office, the young telegraphist argues that it is, in fact, “quite the same.” The girl will come to realize, of course, that their worlds are in fact very separate. Her artful daydreaming about her place in the world of Lady Bradeen and Captain Everard falls apart when Mrs. Jordan unravels the “real” story at the story’s end. In his (and of course “her”) last paragraph, James marks a return to the infallibility of the human agent: “A policeman, while she remained, strolled past her; then, going his way a little further and half lost in the atmosphere, paused and watched her. But she was quite unaware—she was full of her thoughts.”