She Was Trapped in and by Her Job

Henry James

I’ve read too much to comment on in any kind of articulate way. I’m entering my second year (yay!) of a PhD program at DU in Literary Studies. I thought I’d consumed books before, but now, I know the difference. Out of my first year’s grouping, let me isolate at least one sentence. A challenging task –and if you befriend me on Goodreads, you can peruse the list– though I must choose Henry James. I thankfully was tasked to read his novella In The Cage: a tale about a telegrapher woman who fantasizes about her high-society customers. She doesn’t want to break the fantasy by joining them, though. That wouldn’t do.

This novella is stream-of-consciousness only because James is fond of the comma. One can read along but it takes fortitude and the kind of alertness one stores in the marrow for poetry.

Coming from retail myself, there are points at which I am plunged back into the service industry, regardless of time or station. The smells of retail are visceral and come with any category of work. They are always assailing and strong and give one a delayed repugnance long after the job is left behind.

Case in point:

“Her function was to sit there with two young men—the other telegraphist and the counter-clerk; to mind the ‘sounder,’ which was always going, to dole out stamps and postal-orders, weigh letters, answer stupid questions, give difficult change and, more than anything else, count words as numberless as the sands of the sea, the words of the telegrams thrust, from morning to night, through the gap left in the high lattice, across the encumbered shelf that her forearm ached with rubbing. This transparent screen fenced out or fenced in, according to the side of the narrow counter on which the human lot was cast, the duskiest corner of a shop pervaded not a little, in winter, by the poison of perpetual gas, and at all times by the presence of hams, cheese, dried fish, soap, varnish, paraffin, and other solids and fluids that she came to know perfectly by their smells without consenting to know them by their names” (James 118).

Immediately, I’m reminded of patio duty at The Westin Resort’s restaurant. 6 am, when the nose is not used to any smell, being attacked by egg and onion and Pine-Sol. Or 6 am at Crabtree and Evelyn, the store would ooze into the mall a woody-rose combination. Once in, the powdery scent of Nantucket Briar took over. Chucking lunch and sometimes dinner into the tiny, souring fridge…

What is Henry James’ lesson here? Part POV, part illegal use of prepositional phrases all piled up…commas, semicolons, smells and sounds all contribute to character and this character is the plot.

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2 responses to “She Was Trapped in and by Her Job

  1. I just LOVE and Appreciate your words immensely
    every. single. time.

    **What is Henry James’ lesson here?**

    Perhaps, he just didn’t give a damn OR he is bringing us into the discontented mind of the poor sales girl!

    PhD? You ROCKKK.

  2. Ditto, Kim. Sorry I’ve been absent lately!! 🙂

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