Summary

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“Wireless” is on one level the story of a failed experiment. Mr. Cashell, Jr., has invited the narrator to join him in an attempt to send radio transmissions between his uncle’s shop and an operator in Poole, some distance away. At first, Poole does not come through, and by the time it does, the narrator has lost interest and has decided to go home. In the interim, all that has been heard on Cashell’s radio receiver is the sound of two warships failing to communicate with each other—their transmitters working but their receivers out of tune—ending with the phrase “Disheartening most disheartening.” On the scientific level, then, nothing happens in “Wireless”—though one should note that everyone in the story accepts that these mishaps will be corrected soon, if not immediately, and that this scientific failure is purely temporary and will ultimately prove insignificant.

More significant, and potentially more disheartening, is what happens while Mr. Cashell is waiting for his signal. The narrator passes the time by talking to the young shop assistant, John Shaynor. It is soon clear that Shaynor is dying of tuberculosis. He will not admit it to himself, blaming his cough on a sore throat from smoking too many cigarettes, but Cashell does not expect him to live a year, and the narrator silently agrees. Shaynor is also, equally pathetically, infatuated with a girl who comes into the shop and takes him out—into a bitingly cold east wind, the last thing one would recommend for a tuberculosis patient—but who will clearly outlive and very probably forget him. Shaynor is a doomed nobody.

However, for a few brief hours he is also a focus, the human “receiver” (perhaps) for a message that comes through from Somewhere. This message appears to consist of the poetry of John Keats. As Shaynor slumps into a coma—caused perhaps by his illness, or possibly by the lethal alcoholic concoction the narrator has devised to warm everyone up—he starts first to declaim, and then to write, garbled versions, fragments, even whole sections, mostly of Keats’s poem “The Eve of St. Agnes,” but also of “Ode to a Nightingale” and the ode “To Autumn.” When Shaynor comes out of his coma, the narrator establishes that he has never heard of Keats. He is not remembering, then. Where has the poetry come from? Furthermore, how does this mysterious and supernatural event relate to the equally mysterious but scientific event (or nonevent) taking place in Cashell’s makeshift signal station next door?

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