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The Ethics of Determinism in Henry James's 66In The Cage" by Janet Gabler-Hover, Georgia State University ι Henry James's "In the Cage" (1898) is a perplexing dramatization of a young heroine whose impulse to act positively toward the end of self-improvement is borne down and fettered by fatalistic circumstances. Henry James usually restrains his heroines or heroes circumstantially from realizing in life the superior possibilities that are hypothetically entertained by their prodigious imaginations. But from the 1890s come a series of stories, including, among others, The Spoils of Poynton (1896), What Maisie Knew (1897) and "In the Cage" (1898), where James turned the screws on his heroines' confined possibilities most tortuously. In What Maisie Knew, the question of what James's "little wonderworking agent" (WM vii) can achieve through an imaginative reconstruction of events rests squarely on the question of what is possible for Maisie to create out of the crisis of the lack of parental and societal care marking the reality of her world. The moral bleakness of that world seems depressingly resistant to Maisie's efforts. But in The Spoils of Poynton and "In the Cage," James delimits his heroines more fatalistic-ally still. The heroines of these tales are situated in a baroque entanglement of ethical consideration that adds to the question of what is possible the additional preoccupation with what is moral. At the outset of "Cage," the issue seems whether the anonymous telegraphist can invent, through her own imaginative resources, a new identity for herself, can, indeed, ' 'escape,' ' as the heroine puts it, the ' 'ugliness and obscurity' ' of her constitutive reality: a ravaged, ineffectual mother, prosaic employment in the proletarian marketplace of a grocery, and imminent marriage to dull but faithful Mr. Mudge, whose secure future in the world of commestibles will prohibit the heroine from "risfing]" to the more freeing and aesthetically pleasing world of the upper class to which she aspires (IC 499). "In the Cage" begins with Mudge's proposal forthcoming, and with the heroine's impending removal from her cage as telegraphist in a grocery store in the The Henry James Review 13 (1992): 253-74 © 1992 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 254 The Henry James Review wealthy London district of Mayfair to her future husband's establishment in middle-class Chalk Farm, a change she has accepted fatalistically but is trying to delay as long as possible. Through the course of events in the tale, the telegraphist does manage to create for herself an alternative life possibility through the creative power of her imagination. The story does not hinge on the question of what the telegraphist believes possible, but on the question of whether she can square this possibility with her own ethics. In the end, she decides to act ethically by not exploiting the opportunity she has created, as opposed to acting positively on it in a purely pragmatic sense. And James's motive for creating his heroine out of the lower-class bourgeoisie—something he did uniquely here—seems not for the purpose of making a socio-economic statement, as recent neo-Marxist readings of "In the Cage" have argued (Bauer and Lakritz; Wicke; Hutchinson), but, rather, for the purpose of engaging with dramatic rigor in his ethical preoccupations. In the preface to "In the Cage," James concedes that his portrait of his "brooding telegraphist" lacks "verisimilitude" because her "ground of ingenuity" in the social class that she is in is "scarcely more thinkable than desirable." Why, then, does James give her such an implausibly prodigious "winged intelligence"? It is certainly not to capture the real plight of the social bourgeoisie. For James, as always, "the action of the drama is simply the girl's 'subjective' adventure," and "without this excess the phenomena detailed would have lacked their principle of cohesion' ' (IC xxi). This lowering of the social milieu enables James, by virtue of placing his heroine in the most restrictive of socioeconomic situations, to heighten her subjective drama of refusing choices in life on the basis of ethics. Her denial reverberates with the great shaking courage that it required—but it reverberates also for James's more pragmatically inclined readers. It reverberates with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 253-275
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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