Humor is the single effect W. W. Jacobs creates in his dockside stories, based on the lives of working-class people before socialism and war changed the British social structure. He uses exaggeration and overstatement to create laughter-provoking farce. However, his stories cannot be classified as satire as he makes no attempt to reform society or his characters’ ridiculous and entertaining behavior.
Jacobs uses a third-person observer as narrator. For a mug of beer, the Nightwatchman, a retired seaman, or the Old Timer at the Cauliflower Inn will entertain travelers with their tales. Dialogue includes just enough Cockney dialect to add authentic speech patterns without confusing the reader. Nearly half of Jacobs’s stories feature the escapades of sailors on schooners going up or down the Thames estuary or in places like Wapping. The rest feature villagers in towns like Claybury. He is especially adept at describing funny looking or eccentric characters. Female characters are either pretty, deceitful flirts or bossy old women. Fans easily recognize stock characters similar to those in British music hall farces.
Plots revolve around devious and complicated schemes to make money without doing any work, to “get even” with rivals, or to play practical jokes. Jacobs skillfully weaves in complications and polishes off each story with a surprise ending. His stories contain no moral dilemmas, no social problems, and no sex. They are simply good, clean fun, written for middle class readers of Strand magazine. Each story is approximately five thousand words long. Jacobs skillfully creates scenes that move slowly and allow readers a chuckle before each new complication begins.
In addition to humorous stories, Jacobs wrote a few suspenseful mysteries: “His Brother’s Keeper,” “The Well,” “The Interruption,” “Jerry Bundler,” and a novella, The Brown Man’s Servant. Only “The Monkey’s Paw,” a horror-fantasy story, remains well known. As in Jacobs’s humorous stories, a familiar theme in his horror-mysteries is the futility of trying to “get something for nothing.”
Seaman Dan enters the fo’c’sle of the schooner Greyhound and persuades the crew to help him smuggle a runaway soldier to London without the skipper finding out. Private Smith is “six foot four of underdone lobster” and difficult to hide in his red uniform. After the boat gets under way, Smith confesses that he deserted the army because his fickle girlfriend wants him back. He has no clothes except for his uniform, and he will surely be arrested when he steps on shore. Dan expects to get twenty-five shillings from the stowaway, but after he comes aboard, Smith reveals he has only “fi’pence ha’ penny.”
Complications arise. Two days into the voyage down the Thames, Billy reports the captain is coming to inspect the fo’c’sle prior to having it painted. The crew must decide what to do with the stowaway. Suggestions include “chuck him overboard” with a life preserver and hope another ship picks him up or paint stripes on his body and say he is an insane runaway. Adventurous young Billy comes up with the solution: Toss “Her Majesty’s uniform” overboard; then Smith can jump over the side and pretend he has fallen from another boat.
Joe “rescues” him with a line and pulls him aboard....
(The entire section is 1397 words.)