“In the Cage” by Henry James

“But what do you read for enjoyment?” people sometimes ask me. I re-phrase the question to myself: What do I read when I am not inclined to – or, at the end of as hard day, am in no state to – rise to an intellectual challenge? The answer varies. Sometimes, it’s a good ghost story; at other times, something by Wodehouse, perhaps; or maybe a Flashman novel, or one of those boys’ own adventure stories I so used to love; much of the time, it’s my beloved Sherlock Holmes stories, which I never seem to tire of. But there’s something about that original question I find a bit uncomfortable: it seems to imply that books that do require an effort, books that can only be taken in after something of a struggle, cannot be enjoyed.

It is a curious notion. No-one doubts that the chess player who expends immense effort thinking out complex chequered strategies is actually enjoying that expenditure of effort; no-one denies that the keen mountaineer who struggles to reach a difficult peak enjoys the struggle of ascent; and yet, behind that question “But what do you read for enjoyment?” seems to lurk a certain incredulity, a refusal even to contemplate the possibility that a reader may actually enjoy surmounting the difficulties of a difficult book.

At this point, however, analogies break down. Chess players or mountaineers may enjoy surmounting difficulties for their own sake, but there is little that can be said for a book that is difficult merely for the sake of being difficult.  So how can one justify the difficulties of the late Henry James? I do not merely mean the difficulty that is a feature of all works that may be termed “profound”: to look beyond the surface into profundities that lie beyond is always difficult, and, unless one is satisfied with no more than what may be seen on the surface, this difficulty cannot be avoided. I mean the difficulty of that prose style he developed in his later years – that maddening style comprising of endlessly long sentences with such contorted syntax that even experienced readers find themselves re-reading each one several times over merely to discover what some pronoun may be referring to, or even, at times, what the subject of the sentence may be. Is all that really necessary?

It’s hard to say. If one may imagine James’ re-written in a simpler style, I suspect something important would be lost in the process, and what would be lost, I think, is that extraordinary ability of his to hint at everything, and yet, at the same time, to confirm nothing. Nothing is ever explicit in Henry James – especially in late Henry James: the very precision of his prose suggests a vagueness, the very fastidiousness an uncertainty. This allows James to explore in meticulous detail the slightest perceptions, the finest nuances of his characters’ minds, while leaving us to guess at their exact relationship with the reality that lies outside. How exactly he achieves this is beyond my limited powers of analysis, but I do suspect that it would not have been possible were it not for that curious and instantly recognizable prose style he came to develop.

“In the Cage”, a late novella – or long short story, or short novel, or whatever one wants to call it; James himself simply called it a “tale” – is a case in point. James rarely tells what really happens: indeed, looking back on the tale, very little seems to happen at all. What James tells us what the principal character thinks happens. The focal point is not the events themselves, such as they are, but the principal character’s interpretation of the events.

As in “The Turn of the Screw”, the protagonist is unnamed. And once again, she is an emotionally repressed young lady. But where “The Turn of the Screw” was a supernatural chiller, this is a social comedy. The protagonist here is from a middle class background, but, being impoverished, has to work for a living at a post-office counter. It is a dull job: the grill at the counter at which she works is the “cage” of the title, and clearly, the cage is metaphorical as well as real: every aspect of her life is severely circumscribed by social and economic realities. She is engaged also, to a marvellously named Mr Mudge, a grocer who, through diligence and through thrift, is already on his way to becoming successful in life. She is fortunate: as her friend Mrs Jordan reminds us towards the end, women may accept proposals of marriage simply to avoid starvation. Mr Mudge, for all his absurdity, is at least a decent man. But “her imaginative life,” James tells us, “was the life in which she spent most of her time”.

Inside this cage, both real and metaphorical, the protagonist, as part of her job, has to send off telegrams from various customers, many of whom are aristocratic. And, while she doesn’t admit this to herself, she clearly falls in love with a young aristocrat; and, from the messages of the telegrams he sends, she deduces that he is having an illicit affair. The parallels with the governess in “The Turn of the Screw” are quite clear: in both cases, they construct in their minds stories which may or may not be true, but the truth or otherwise is not the point.

The parallels between this tale and “The Turn of the Screw” soon break down. The governess in “The Turn of the Screw” is hysterical: her imagination – if, indeed, the ghosts are imaginary: we can never be sure – is diseased; but for the telegraphist here, imagination plays a somewhat different role. It would have been all too easy to have presented her imagination as harmful, and the telegraphist herself as a pitiable, self-deluded character whose refusal to accept reality can only end in tears. That would have been how most other authors would, I think, have presented it. But James, with infinite skill, shows us something very different: he shows his protagonist’s life enriched by her imagination. The world she lives in is mundane and dull; the world she imagines is also, in reality, mundane and dull, though she only discovers this later; but in the midst of all this, her imagination creates something that is more splendid and more noble by far than anything reality can offer her in her cage, or even, perhaps, out of it. She is presented as an artist, taking from reality its various scraps and pieces, and re-forming them, and re-arranging them into something that is more beautiful. And when, eventually, reality has to be faced, she faces it: she has, after all, already had her triumph.

Has there ever been any other novelist who has charted the uncertain motivations of changing perceptions of the human mind with such subtlety and such detailed nuance? Each sentence, expressing so very much with such natural elegance, is masterly: many of these sentences I find myself reading and re-reading over, partly to understand them, but also partly just for the sheer joy of it. Difficult? Sure – but difficulty be damned! As for those who think of difficult writing as something not to be enjoyed, I can only ask: What can there be more enjoyable than this?


18 responses to this post.

  1. My first encounter with the infamous late prose style of Henry James was “The Ambassadors”; I read and reread the first page several times, the meaning still eluding me, until it finally fell together and, with perseverance and practice, this novel and the other two with which it forms an informal trilogy (“The Wings of the Dove” and “The Golden Bowl”) yielded up more of their treasures.

    I think the style, ripe for parody though it undoubtedly is, does serve a purpose in allowing James a framework within which he can better construct his finely nuanced observations of character and behaviour. Once you relax into the prose (and Proust offers different but analogous challenges) doors do open; the enjoyment lies, for me at least, in savouring the view from the top of the mountain after a particularly arduous ascent.

    Speaking of difficulties for their own sake, the exemplar must surely be Finnegans Wake. I wrestled with this (armed with some annotated guides and Anthony Burgess’ invaluable “Here Comes Everybody”) one summer but, whilst there are passages of striking beauty, and the cumulative effect of meaning emerging through the static of a literary tower of Babel is extraordinary, ultimately I was left with the impression of the balance between enjoyment and puzzle-solving being tipped too far towards the latter.


    • Those three last novels of James really are quite miraculous, aren’t they? I must admit, though, that The Golden Bowl did get a bit much for me: James took his allusive style as far as it could go in this novel, and his intent focus (only four characters fr over 600 pages) did seem a bit claustrophobic at times. But that’s a comment on me, not thenovel. The Ambassadors, especially, is a great favourite of mine.

      Finnegans Wake, I think, is probably beyond me, although I do enjoy dipping into parts o fit. I do have a friend who has read the thing, but then again, he finds Faulkner too difficult … It seems even difficulty is a subjective matter!

      The Henry James novel that defeated me was The Awkward Age. I think that despite the failure of his play, James still wanted to be Ibsen (whom he admired), and this novel is constructed as a sequence of scenes, and is driven almost entirely by dialogue. To my mind, it just didn’t come off, and I’ve never made it past page 100 or so.


      • James was a master of many things, but dialogue was possibly not one of them, and I think this is what marks The Awkward Age as a failure; for a masterclass in writing a novel composed almost entirely of dialogue, I’d recommend A House & Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett.

      • Everyone in James’ novels speak in much the same style as the narrative voice, and while we may be happy to accept this piece of stylisation in a novel, it is not something that works too well on stage. Perhaps more importantly, in an novel, the effect comes from the interweaving of teh dialogue with the narrative voice, whereas on stage, the words spoken are all we have to go on: thus, dramatic dialogue requires a different technique from dialogue in a prose narrative. I don’t know James’ play Guy Domville (which was a huge flop), but on the basis of The Awkward Age, James was no dramatist.

  2. Yes, that question ‘what do you read for enjoyment?’ is a peculiar one, and there’s only one answer: BOOKS. Someone told me that other day that they just “don’t get” reading–all that sitting there and staring at pages….


    • Well – if it is merely sitting & staring at pages, I wouldn’t “get” it either! 🙂

      Mind you, there are so many things that give other people pleasure that I don’t “get”. I have always thought of golf as a practical joke that the Scots have inflicted on the rest of the world, but the rest of the world seem to enjoy it! Half the world does not understand the pleasures of the other half, as Ms Austen put it.


  3. I think that “what do you read for enjoyment” could be rephrased as “what do you read to unwind?”

    “Has there ever been any other novelist who has charted the uncertain motivations of changing perceptions of the human mind with such subtlety and such detailed nuance?” My answer to this one would be Proust. Also known for his endless sentences. When I read What Maisie Knew, I thought how Proust is better at writing long phrases that seem necessary ie not lacking of editing and reworking like sometimes for James. That’s how I felt.

    Sarah’s review of What Maisie Knew explores the same ideas: in the end, we don’t really know what Maisie actually knew. We only have ideas. http://sarahbbc.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/what-maisie-knew-henry-james/


    • Yes, agreed about Proust. I do need to tackle Proust properly, as I have, so far, done no more than dip my toes into the water. But you’re quite right, Proust could also explore the finest nuances of the human mind, although his preoccupations were a bit different from those of James.

      James’ prose, once you “relax into it”, as Alan puts it above, is actually very elegant and very expressive. And it is finely tuned to serve his purpose. That climactic scene of The Golden Bowl, for instance, where Maggie and her father have their final encounter, where nothing actually happens and nothing actually gets said, but nonetheless, where everything seems to find its resolution, would have been impossible to bring off without James’ very idiosyncratic prose style.


  4. Could be rephrased – and should be. Don’t let people who ask that condescending question off the hook. Everything I read on my own time is for enjoyment, and based on what I see on other people’s blogs, I enjoy it a lot more. How often do I tell anyone I did not enjoy a book?


    • Well, indeed – I certainly don’t read to give myself a bad time! But I think it’s often a question of how one defines “enjoyment”: if one uses the word in the sense of “diversion”, or “amusement”, or as a light entertainment to while away a few idle hours, then it is obvious that books such as The Wings of the Dove, say, or Mrs Dalloway, don’t really fit the bill. That there can be enjoyment of a different sort, and that it can be found in books that often make great demands of the reader, is not really a very obvious message for those who have not exprienced it.


  5. I enjoy difficult books and while I read some lighter fare, two such in a row would be too much. I enjoy wresting with difficult writers and come back over again to such as WG Sebald, Thomas Mann, Proust etc. However, for some reason I have not enjoyed Henry James’s books – quite why I can’t say. Your review above makes me think I should try him again (which surely is the reason for reading book blogs – to discover new reading territory)


    • To be honest, I am not really a fully paid-up Jamesian myself, although I do of course admire him immensely. It is my brother who is a huge fan of James, and it is on his instigation that I read “In the Cage”.

      Apparently, whenever a new James novel was published, Conrad would drop everything else and read it, and then spend days shaking his head and muttering to himself “How does he do it?” Graham Greene, when asked how he prepared for writing a novel, replied that he’d read over a couple of Henry James works. The reverence with which even the ffinest of novelists regard him really is quite extraordinary.


  6. Posted by lisa on January 7, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    What is the theme of the story?
    and How well does the title represent the whole story?


    • Hello Lisa, I don’t know that there are straight-forward answers to either of your questions. To address these issues would require essays: I imagine these would be very good questions to set as assignments to students of literature. Sadly, I have not studied literature formally since the age of 16: I am merely an enthusiastic amateur who likes to talk about books.

      But if you have your own ideas relating to these questions, please do put them up here: that’s just the sort of thing we need here to initiate discussion!

      Cheers, Himadri


  7. Posted by brenda. on January 9, 2012 at 7:03 pm

    Another H J tale added to my must read pile. Sorry Himadri I lurk without joining in, I always regret that discussion wasn’t encouraged at my grammar school.


    • Hello Brenda,and good to see you here. And lurk away – by all means! 🙂

      As you can tell, I loved “In the Cage”. To use modern parlance, it’s a “feelgood” book – it affirms. The basic situation of the story is such that it could easily have led to tragedy, but James does not allow that: instead of decrying the destructive force of fantasy and delusion, he celebrates instead the redemptive power of the human imagination. I know you loved “The Golden Bowl” – I imagine this one will be right up your street!


  8. Posted by Robert on September 25, 2012 at 9:06 am

    instead of decrying the destructive force of fantasy and delusion, he celebrates instead the redemptive power of the human imagination.
    It’s too late for Lisa (Jan 2012) but that sums up the novella perfectly. HJ is asumed to be beyond the reach of ‘ordinary’ readers because he supposedly only portrays the monied classes. Having just read ‘Cage’ I am tempted to try The Princess Casamassima for two reasons: it deals with the lives of the middle classes and it deals with the anarchists in late 19th century London, a situation covered, of course, by Conrad with The Secret Agent. As a relative newcomer to James I think in the end I will cop out and read his Portraits of Places next as I do like his descriptions of cities and countryside in a number of the Tales.


    • “The Princess Casamassima” is a curiosu novel: it takes its plot from Turgenev’s “Virgin Soil” – it’s about a would-be revolutionary who becomes seduced by the charms of teh upper classes, and cannot summon up the enthusiasm for teh cause he had once believed in – and I can’t help feeling that in this instance, Turgenev made a better job of it. But it’s been a long ime since I read either novel, and I’d be interested to know what you make of this.


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