Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The central theme of the story is clearly the inexplicable. Twice the narrator asks Cashell for an explanation of what he is doing, asking first what is “electricity,” and second what is “induction.” Both times, Cashell replies by telling him, not what these phenomena are, but how they work. The propagation of radio waves through empty space remains itself mysterious to the characters, and is referred to more than once as “magic.”

It is worth noting how very up-to-date Rudyard Kipling was, both in his science and in his sense of amazement. “Wireless” was first published in 1902, but even if this fact were not known, the story could be precisely dated on internal evidence. Its first sentence, from Shaynor, is: “It’s a funny thing, this Marconi business.” This comment clearly dates the story as occurring after 1896 (the year of the first arrival of Guglielmo Marconi in England) and probably after 1901—for it was in December of that year that Marconi created a sensation with the first transatlantic radio transmission. In the center of the story, however, is a clear description of a device known as a “coherer.” This was the work of Edouard Branly, and was used in the early Marconi transmissions but was supplanted after 1904 by the diode. The incident of the warships signaling further recalls an event of 1899. However, by 1910, it is safe to say, such contacts were too regular to be any longer a matter of amazement. “Wireless” accurately records the first impact of a major new technology on popular consciousness. That impact is one of awe and fear.

The central thought of Kipling’s story, then, is that if an inexplicable “Power” can send impalpable messages through the dimension of space, then maybe it, or another, can send messages through time....

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