Jacobs, W. W. (William Wymark Jacobs)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Jacobs, W. W. (William Wymark Jacobs)

Jacobs, W. W. (William Wymark Jacobs) (1863-1943) English short story writer and playwright

Edwardian horror and crime writer W. W. Jacobs earned a grudging regard from critics for mock-serious plots reflecting the influence of British imperialism on working-class characters. Jacobs's canon draws on his youth along the Thames estuary, where he absorbed the barroom stories and tall tales of sailors and merchant mariners returning from colonies in Asia and the Pacific. Employed in the Savings' Bank Department of the General Post Office, he simultaneously wrote for English Illustrated, Pearson’s, Strand, and To-day some 150 humorous narratives and ghost stories that challenged the credulity of his readers. He depicted primitivism with animal imagery, similar to the squawking parrot in ROBERT Louis STEVENSON'S TREASURE ISLAND (1883), Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE'S swamp adder in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1892), and the lurking cobra in RUDYARD KIPLING'S “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” (1895). For GOTHIC exotica, he chose a Burmese murderer and his pet cobra in “The Brown Man's Servant” (1897) and the powers of a supernatural artifact imported to England from India in his frequently anthologized story “The Monkey's Paw” (1902), in which a military veteran advises against testing the power of a magical charm.

Jacobs made his mark on the literature of empire with “The Monkey's Paw,” a suspense classic published in Harper’s and anthologized in The Lady of the Barge (1902). A model of atmospheric STORYTELLING, the plot begins in a remote area of England on a rainy night. The conflict arises from a series of stories told by a veteran, SergeantMajor Morris, who requires three whiskeys before he reveals his brush with an Indian curse. The mummified paw of the title animal, a symbol of the Indian monkey deity Hanuman, suggests an instrument of retribution from Asia against its invader. The tale tells the results of three wishes that ruin the lives of unsuspecting, gullible couple susceptible to natural greed. Set in 1870 at the height of Victorian imperialism, the narrative reveals a ghoulish revenge conjured up by sinister elements that colonials unwittingly import home like a native virus to safe, predictable England.

The mummified amulet in the title, the gift of a fakir, enters the story in the pocket of Morris, who notes that the first recipient to make a wish chose death as his final request. While making a wish, the host, Mr. White, reports, “It twisted in my hands like a snake” (Jacobs 2004, 16), an image suggesting the snake charmers of India. Jacobs connects the doom-laden talisman with man-eating technology in the death of the cottagers' son Herbert at his job at Maw and Meggins, a name suggesting the insatiable appetite of the factory system for laborers. The connection of pagan magic with England's progressive epoch indicates that the nation will pay for foisting its modernism onto innocent colonies.


Cloy, John D. Pensive Jester: The Literary Career of W. W.

Jacobs. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1996.

Jacobs, W. W. The Lady of the Barge and Others.

Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004.