W. W. Jacobs Jacobs, W. W. - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Many Cargoes 1896

The Skipper's Wooing. The Brown Man's Servant (novellas) 1897

Sea Urchins (short stories) 1898; also published as More Cargoes, 1898

Light Freights 1901

*The Lady of the Barge 1902

Odd Craft 1903

Captains All 1905

Short Cruises 1907

Sailor's Knots 1909

Ship's Company 1911

Night Watches 1914

Deep Waters 1919

Sea Whispers 1926

Snug Harbor 1931

Cruises and Cargoes (anthology) 1934

Selected Short Stories 1975

The Monkey's Paw and Other Stories 1994

The Monkey's Paw and Other Tales of Mystery and the Macabre [edited by Gary Hoppenstand] 1997

A Master of the Craft (novel) 1900

At Sunwich Port (novel) 1902

Dialstone Lane (novel) 1904

Salthaven (novel) 1908

Admiral Peters [with Horace Mills] (drama) 1909

Beauty and the Barge [with Louis N. Parker] (drama) 1910

The Castaways (novel) 1916

The Warming Pan (drama) 1929

Master Mariners (drama) 1930

Matrimonial Openings (drama) 1931

The Night Watchman and Other Longshoremen (novel) 1932

Double Dealing (drama) 1935

*This collection contains the initial publication of the short story “The Monkey’s Paw.”

John Wain (essay date 1960)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wain, John. “A Jest in Season: Notes on S. J. Perelman, with a Digression on W. W. Jacobs.” In S. J. Perelman: Critical Essays, edited by Steven H. Gale, pp. 69-86. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1960, Wain compares the Jacobs's short fiction with the work of S. J. Perelman.]

Why the digression? Surely there is enough material in the brilliant virtuosity and long career of S. J. Perelman to satisfy the most restless analyst?

Certainly. I have always been an admirer of Perelman, and when early last year I was so fortunate as to make his acquaintance in New York, our conversation stimulated a long-nursed wish to write an essay on his work. But whenever I look round for a comparison, a contrast, something by which to take a bearing, it is always Jacobs who comes to mind. Not George Ade, not Ring Lardner, both acknowledged influences on Mr. Perelman's work; but this forgotten Edwardian English humorist, creator of “the Night-Watchman and other longshoremen.”

One reason for the mental jump is plain. The very completeness of Jacobs's disappearance is an illustration of something that bulks very large in the life of a comic writer. Fashions in humour change with bewildering speed, and the world of the comic writer is as tough as the world of the circus strong-man. Once the day comes when he cannot lift that weight, he makes way for someone who can—and there is no argument and no second chance. So perhaps it is inevitable that the comparison should be with a writer whose jokes have turned to dust. Such a comparison might help to answer the question, What makes a joke keep? And are the best jokes the ones that keep longest?

W. W. Jacobs, to begin at the beginning, was an English writer of humorous short stories whose popularity hit a peak some time before 1914 and stayed at that peak till about 1940. Some of his pieces were sentimental or morbidly horrific; one of these, “The Monkey's Paw,” seems to be the only fragment of his work that made any impression in America. But in England Jacobs was best known as a funny man; in fact his character “the Night-Watchman,” in whose quaint argot many of his stories were told, must have been one of the best-known people in English fiction. As a boy at school, I came in at the tail-end of Jacobs's popularity; my friends and I used to pass his books from hand to hand and chortle unwearyingly over the jokes. I realize, now, that we were the last generation for whom Jacobs worked. It is a taste that links us with our fathers, but will never link us with our sons. Ask any company of 21-year-olds nowadays if they have heard of Jacobs, and watch the puzzled frowns. I find it almost incredible that he has disappeared so abruptly. The formerly solid earth opened in some odd moment when one's back was turned, and Jacobs, together with his gallery of permanent characters—the Night-Watchman, Ginger Dick, Sam Small, Peter Russet, Bob Pretty and the Oldest Inhabitant—disappeared forever.

Was this inevitable? Does humour always go out of fashion? By no means. We can make a fair distinction between durable and non-durable humour. If we look at Shakespeare, for instance, we see at once that the jokes based on character and situation are still as funny as they were; it is the purely modish humour of word-play and parody that has died. Falstaff, from the moment he enters with that magnificent opening line, “Now Hal, what time of day is it, lad?” is the great comic figure he must always have been. (This is not to deny that there are some people, mostly women, who just don't think the Falstaff scenes are funny. Such jokes simply don't work with them. But these, you can be sure, existed in Shakespeare's day too. This is not a question of fashion, but of temperament.) Chaucer's jokes, except where they happen to be on subjects that have passed completely out of memory, are still supremely funny. So is a lot of the comedy of ancient Greece.

It is not, then, an immutable fate that puts comic writing out of date. But there is one heavy law, to which I can think of no exceptions. Changes of fashion, in every other art reversible, are in comic writing irreversible. The things we think funny today in older writers have been thought funny without interruption down the centuries. Once the joke is lost, it stays lost. A novelist or poet can have a period “out,” as Donne or Sterne did, and come back with a resounding bang. But a joker, once buried, is never dug up. Of course, there may be a few years here and there in which a good comic writer is buried by prudery as the Victorians buried Restoration and classical comedy. But banning a writer is a different matter from reading him with a yawn; those Victorians (and they were, whether surprisingly or not, quite numerous) who did read The Country Wife or Lysistrata didn't deny that they were funny.

Let us take the matter a little further. When a joke goes out of date it is usually because an attitude has disappeared. What a man finds funny is a sure guide to his character, and, for historical reasons, the characters of whole societies, and therefore of the people in them, can change—not, perhaps, basically, but certainly enough to drive a lot of jokes out of circulation. Jacobs went out because he wrote within the convention that the English working man is funny—I mean funny per se, funny before he does or says anything funny. With his strange accent, his inability to pronounce the letter “h,” his comical clothes, he has only to walk into the pages of a book and the reader gets his facial muscles ready for a smile. That, at any rate, was the convention. It sprang, of course, from middle-class complacency and middle-class bewilderment. Both the writer and his reader were genteel persons who had, owing to the rigidity of English life, very little contact with the working man, who consequently remained a puzzle; they could not think what sort of life went on in those rows of blackened little houses, or what it was really like to do that sort of work. The novel, and fiction generally, is (in Europe at any rate) essentially a bourgeois form. Neither the working class nor the aristocracy figure in it at all centrally. An aristocrat, in an English novel, is just as likely to be a comic figure—when he is not merely a focus for envious fantasies—as a labourer. So the lower-deck, below-stairs character was shown as funny because a laugh is the natural human reaction to something you don't understand. And also because it kept him in his place. And also because, not having been educated and therefore finding the world full of mysteries, he tended to mispronounce words, to hold on to quaint beliefs, to make laughable mistakes. And lastly because, as anyone can see, the English working class are funny, in the good sense; they have humour and gaiety, more so in many cases than the higher-ups.

Nothing in Jacobs's writing suggests that he ever questioned these conventions. Here is a specimen. (The situation: three sailormen have been asked to speak words of caution to a youngster, nephew to one of them, who is about to jump into an early marriage.)

“Twenty-one is young,” ses Ginger, shaking his head. “'Ave you known 'er long?”

“Three months,” says the nevy. “She lives in the same street as I do. 'Ow it is she ain't been snapped up before, I can't think, but she told me that she didn't care for men till she saw me.”

“They all say that,” ses Ginger.

“If I've 'ad it said to me once, I've 'ad it said twenty times,” ses Peter, nodding.

“They do it to flatter,” ses old Sam, looking as if 'e knew all about it. “You wait till you are my age, Joe; then you'll know; why, I should ha' been married dozens o' times if I 'adn't been careful.”

“P'r'aps it was a bit on both sides,” ses Joe, looking at 'is uncle. “P'r'aps they was careful too. If you could only see my young lady you wouldn't talk like that. She's got the truthfullest eyes in the world. Large grey eyes like a child's, leastways sometimes they are grey and sometimes they are blue. It seems to depend on the light somehow; I 'ave seen them when they was a brown—brownish-gold. And she smiles with 'er eyes.”

“Hasn't she got a mouth?” ses Ginger, wot was getting a bit tired of it.

“You've been crossed in love,” ses the nevy, staring at 'im. “That's wot's the matter with you. And looking at you, I don't wonder at it.”

Such passages as this are a strange mixture of genuinely good writing, polished and well timed, and inert convention which has dated badly. Jacobs has a useful gift for extracting humour out of very simple situations, without flogging them to death; on the other hand, he also expects us to be amused at the stylized lingo full of dropped h's, “wot,” and the rest of it. This kind of thing is really a form of pastoral; the characters are no more like real sailors than a Dresden figure is like a real shepherd; they are simplified figures, constructed to live in a world of utterly harmless comedy where vice is typified by one half-pint too many and trouble by a spell of nagging from the wife. It has, I surmise, gone out of fashion because no one today is interested in such innocence. And if they were, they would hardly people their pastoral landscape with working-class figures, for that convention has also gone out. In the 'thirties, the British left-wing conscience woke up uneasily to the fact that the working man simply did not appear in English literature; they set to work to remedy this, and the result was a flood of “social realism” which usually showed proletarian life as an unending round of misery and humiliation; that tide has receded in its turn, but while it lasted it did a lot to wash away the Jacobs kind of humour. P. G. Wodehouse has worn better, because the aristocracy are still a subject for jokes: besides which, he has another and quite separate readership among Americans and Continentals who interpret him, mistakenly, as the biting satirist of a decadent ruling class.

With the innocence of the Jacobs passage just quoted, compare a snatch of Perelman. (The situation: two psychoanalysts, hired to oversee detail in film scenes that concern their mystery, meet in Hollywood.)

“How do you like it out here, Randy?” Wormser inquired. “I get a slight sense of confusion. Perhaps I'm not adjusted yet.”

“You're inhibited,” said Kalbfus, signaling the waiter to repeat. “You won't let yourself go. Infantile denial of your environment.”

“I know,” said Wormser, plaintively, “but a few weeks ago I saw Jack Benny in a sleigh on Sunset Boulevard—with real reindeer. And last night an old hermit in a pillowcase stopped me and claimed the world was coming to an end. When I objected, he sold me a box of figs.”

“You'll get used to it,” the other replied. “I've been here five months, and to me it's God's country. I never eat oranges, but, hell, can you imagine three dozen for a quarter?”

“I guess you're right,” admitted Wormser. “Where are you staying?”

“At the Sunburst Auto Motel on Cahuenga,” said Kalbfus, draining his glass. “I'm sharing a room with two extra girls from Paramount.”

“Oh, I'm sorry. I—I didn't know you and Mrs. Kalbfus were separated.”

“Don't be archaic. She's living there, too.” Kalbfus snapped his fingers at the waiter. “Once in a while I fall into the wrong bed, but Beryl's made her emotional adjustment; she's carrying on with a Greek in Malibu. Interesting sublimation of libido under stress, isn't it? I'm doing a paper on it.” Wormser raised his hand ineffectually to ward off the fifth Zombola, but Kalbfus would not be overborne.

“None of that,” he said sharply. “Come on, drink up. Yes, sir, it's a great town, but I'll tell you something, Sherm. We're in the wrong end of this business. Original stories—that's the caper.” He looked around and lowered his voice. “I'll let you in on a secret, if you promise not to blab. I've been collaborating with the head barber over at Fox, and we've got a ten-strike. It's about a simple, unaffected manicurist who inherits fifty million smackers.”

“A fantasy, eh?” Wormser pondered. “That's a good idea.”

“What the hell do you mean, fantasy?” demanded Kalbfus heatedly. “It happens every day. Wait till you hear the twisteroo, though. This babe, who has everything—houses, yachts, cars, three men in love with her—suddenly turns around and gives back the dough.”

“Why?” asked Wormser, sensing that he was expected to.

“Well, we haven't worked that out yet,” said Kalbfus confidentially. “Probably a subconscious wealth phobia. Anyway, Zanuck's offered us a hundred and thirty G's for it, and it isn't even on paper.”

At first sight we are tempted to say that the chief difference between this and Jacobs is the difference between the fast and the slow.

On a closer look it emerges that Perelman isn't, in fact, all that faster. Jacobs keeps the ball rolling pretty smartly; it is simply that he rolls it forward in a straight line, while Perelman, teeming with ideas and associations, keeps it bouncing to and fro unpredictably. They both depend on convention to a certain extent (the jargon of psychologists is funny now, as the dialect of working men was funny then), but Perelman also has teeth. He shows a satiric aggressiveness, not to say venom, quite foreign to Jacobs. The newly-awakened greed and intemperance of the two professional men spirited from their staid consulting-rooms to this Babylon, though presented in terms of apparently high-spirited fun, stays behind as a strongly...

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Hugh Greene (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Greene, Hugh. “Introduction.” In Selected Short Stories, edited by Hugh Greene, pp. 5-9. London: The Bodley Head, 1975.

[In the following essay, Greene assesses Jacobs's literary achievement and discusses autobiographical aspects of his work.]

In a writing life of thirty years between 1896 and 1926 W. W. Jacobs produced twelve volumes of short stories, containing in all more than one hundred and fifty stories, one volume with two long short stories and five full-length novels. Then for the remaining seventeen years of his life, although he had been one of the most successful, and loved, writers of his time he fell completely silent: he never took up his pen...

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John D. Cloy (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cloy, John D. “1863-1896: Beginnings and the New Humor.” In Pensive Jester: The Literary Career of W. W. Jacobs, pp. 1-22. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Inc., 1996.

[In the following essay, Cloy traces the beginning of Jacobs's literary career and discusses Many Cargoes as an example of the New Humor school of the 1890s.]

The present neglect into which W. W. Jacobs has fallen contrasts sharply with his enormous popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century. At one time only Kipling commanded a higher price for short fiction in The Strand Magazine, one of the most widely read British periodicals of the day, where Arthur Conan...

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Gary Hoppenstand (essay date summer 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoppenstand, Gary. “British Noir: The Crime Fiction of W. W. Jacobs.” Journal of Popular Culture 32, no. 1 (summer 1998): 151-63.

[In the following essay, Hoppenstand examines several of Jacobs's detective stories, classifying them as British noir.]

In most discussions of noir literature, it is frequently argued by critics that this genre of crime fiction is distinctly American in origin. Evolving out of the moral and social excesses of the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s and finding a sympathetic audience during the bleak decade of the Great Depression, these critics contend, noir stories feature plots that highlight a dark, urban setting...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Chesterton, G. K. “W. W. Jacobs.” In A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers, edited by Dorothy Collins, pp. 28-35. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1953.

Contends that Jacobs's stories return to a tradition of classical comedy found in the works of Charles Dickens.

Harkey, Joseph H. “Foreshadowing in ‘The Monkey's Paw’.” Studies in Short Fiction VI, no. 5 (fall 1969): 653-54.

Elucidates the structure of “The Monkey's Paw.”

Lamerton, Chris. W. W. Jacobs: A Bibliography, Westbrook, Kent, England: Greystone Press, 1988, 172 p.


(The entire section is 223 words.)