W. W. Jacobs 1863–-1943
(Full name William Wymark Jacobs) English novella and short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.
The following entry provides criticism on Jacobs's short fiction from 1960 through 1998.
One of the most popular English humorists of the early twentieth century, Jacobs is best remembered today for his classic tale of horror, “The Monkey's Paw.” He also wrote comic stories set on the London waterfront, horror stories, and crime tales. Critics applaud his dry humor, colorful dialogue, and spare narrative style. After his death, Jacobs and his work lapsed into relative obscurity and he is viewed today as a minor writer.
Jacobs was born on September 8, 1863, in London, England. His father was a wharf manager, and Jacobs grew up near the docks of Wapping, London; many of his later stories reflect his early experiences near the Thames seaport. As a child, he was educated in private schools and entered the civil service as a clerk in 1879, a job that he hated. Around the age of twenty, he began to write humorous articles, sketches, and stories. Many of his early stories were published in Idler and Today magazines, both edited by Jerome K. Jerome, a prominent humorist of the period and a fan of Jacobs's fiction. His first collection of short stories, Many Cargoes (1896), established Jacobs as a popular humorist. He continued to work in the British civil service until the publication of this third book, Sea Urchins, in 1898. A prolific writer, his literary output fell dramatically after the year 1911. In the last few decades of his life, he wrote very little beyond a few adaptations of his stories for the stage. Nevertheless, he remained very popular during this time, which saw the republication of many of his earlier works. He died on September 1, 1943.
Major Works of Short Fiction
A prolific short fiction writer, Jacobs's tales can be characterized by surprise endings, restrained humor, and an economical narrative style. Most of his stories are set on the London waterfront and focus on characters involved in that milieu. It has been asserted that Jacobs's stories utilized a limited range of plots: the characters are motivated by money, sometimes by marriage or the avoidance of marriage, but nearly all the plots contain trickery or deception. One memorable character recurring throughout Jacobs's work is the Night Watchmen, a retired sailor familiar with the life on the docks, who adopts a London cockney dialect prevalent on the waterfront to narrate many of the stories. Another group of tales are narrated by an old man who frequents the Cauliflower Inn in the village of Claybury; he relates amusing stories about a group of lovable rascals around town. In addition to his humorous stories, Jacobs also wrote horror stories. His best-known example of this genre, “The Monkey's Paw,” has been widely anthologized and adapted for performance on stage and in movies. In this story, a man saves a magical monkey's paw from a fire and is granted three wishes. When his first wish—for a sum of money—results in the death of his beloved son, he realizes that he is dealing with a horrible, uncontrollable power and strives to undo his actions before more damage is done. Jacobs also wrote several crime stories that have been placed within the British noir tradition.
During his lifetime, Jacobs was viewed as a successful, popular short-story writer and humorist. His penchant for trick endings led to his nickname as the “O. Henry of the Waterfront.” Yet after his death, his work fell into critical and popular obscurity. Even with the republication of several of his works, Jacobs's short stories and novels failed to garner significant critical attention. A few critics have traced his decline in popularity to the fickle nature of humor writing and the rise of social realism, noting that Jacobs's comic stories about the English working man are perceived as dated by today's readers. Others note that most of Jacobs's stories lack intellectual substance and social commentary and are too limited to a specific setting—the London seaports during the early twentieth century—as well as his use of the surprise ending. Whatever the cause for his relative obscurity, some critics have found reasons to discuss his short fiction. They praise the precision and economy of his prose and consider him a careful craftsman of the short story. They have examined the portrayal of women in his fiction: a few have detected misogyny in his consistently negative representation of women in his stories; others contend that his harsh depiction of women has its roots in the English comic traditions. His skill as a humorist has elicited comparisons to such classic predecessors as Aristophanes and Charles Dickens and has led critics to place Jacobs within the context of the New Humorist school of British literature. Furthermore, commentators assert that Jacob's humor was not intended to provide psychological insight or social awareness, but rather to give simple amusement, and critics agree that he did this with great success.