‘In the Library’ by W. W. Jacobs: Short Story Analysis
William Wymark Jacobs’, more popularly known as W. W. Jacobs, short story ‘In the Library’, is an action-packed and suspenseful story of how two bachelors spending the evening together alone, land up individually in grave trouble. We must not forget that W. W. Jacobs is the author of the macabre short story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ which we all know and love so well. This tale though not of the supernatural still keeps readers on the edge. The writing style is simple, precise, and with a twist in the tale at the end. We don’t see the humorous side of W. W. Jacobs in this story. ‘In the Library’ is a serious story of two bachelor businessmen Trayton Burleigh and James Fletcher. They fall out with each other over the discussion of Trayton’s bad business deals and his debts which has upset Fletcher. Fletcher wants no part in Trayton’s defalcations. This is the divisive factor in the story which is visible at the onset itself. (W. W. Jacobs is always known to come to the point quickly.) In the bargain, Fletcher chooses not to be dishonest and since the maids are away for the night and the two men are alone, Trayton knifes Fletcher. We know Fletcher doesn’t die immediately. The gap between Fletcher being knifed and Trayton being caught by the astute sergeant and duty-bound constable is what forms the contents of the tale titled ‘In the Library.’
The short story is titled to deceive the reader. We think as bibliophiles that we are in for a sort of bookish story of the love of books, bookkeeping, etc. Instead, we are in for murder which catches us immediately by the neck and hauls us into the lives of Trayton and Fletcher. Murder in W.W. Jacobs’ time was mostly committed in libraries, just like in the literature of our times. The story is about this library where the dying body of Fletcher is. We are not sure whether Fletcher is dead, become a ghost, or has recovered from his wounds. This suspense makes us tingle with anticipation about what is to come next, a very important ingredient in an action thriller. We see the situation through the eyes of the villain Trayton. He seems unsure what to do after his hasty decision of ‘letting the passion of his blood’ rule his wisdom comes with the outcome of a friend’s death. That uncertainty of whether Fletcher is dead or not and the eeriness in the whole tangled situation is described very well by W. W. Jacobs. I would like to draw your attention to the following points in support of my above sentence:
- The ticking clock seemed to be the only thing alive in the household, very moving a line indeed.
- The indecision of Trayton whether if he fled, could he become a journalist in hiding or take to the sea. We must remember that W. W. Jacobs was a seaman and wrote short stories in great detail about sea life.
- The cat getting disturbed and therefore confirming in Trayton’s mind that something was alive in the library even though he thought he had successfully knifed his friend and partner Fletcher to death.
- The weapon used in the killing, the knife, is itself a fascinating object. It is apparently, a small Japanese sword with a sheath of carved ivory. It’s a foreign object, and therefore ‘murder’ and ‘passions’ of the blood are just like it, foreign and not part of the European world.
Soon, Trayton realizes through the library door being ajar and the cat getting disturbed that someone from the street has entered the library. He locks the poor beggared soul in the library and runs for help. He has now found something happening to his advantage; he has got a false suspect, a red herring who can deflect the blame from himself. The poor man realizes he is in the room with a dead body and cries for help along with Trayton. In comes a police constable and a sergeant. Thus, begins the second part of the crisp story. Note that there is a mention in the story that Trayton was used to reading books about crime and murder. So, he knows that this red herring in the library can very much save him from being hanged to death. We know then in the story that through the sergeant’s alertness, astuteness, and finally due to the evidence of the dying, but still alive, Fletcher himself, Trayton’s crime comes to light and he is handcuffed. Note that he is tricked into being handcuffed by the sergeant as he otherwise would have been capable enough of fleeing and never being caught. Though a man of overriding passions and fury, Trayton can be a cunning and conniving man who could disappear with his leftover 200 pounds to a place where the law would never be able to trace him. The sergeant is knowledgeable enough to know this and so tricks Trayton with the spirit in the glass to be drunk. There are many aspects and highlights to this rather simple but well-told story which are as follows:
- The constable readily believes Trayton though he saw him coming out from the house just when he was on his beat. He should have realized at once when he entered the house with the constable that it was Trayton who could have been the only murderer.
- The trick how the sergeant got Trayton to give him his pistol without force, showing him to be a man of great alertness of mind and shrewdness.
- The sergeant also is a great judge of character but was also aided by the moving dying lips of Fletcher.
- The dying Fletcher himself is a ponderable matter. The whole story could have taken many turns in our mind, even to the point of the fantastical or the paranormal. This is due to the electrifying prose of W. W. Jacobs. We keep on wondering right till the end about the reality of whether Fletcher was dead or not. We fantasize about the dying body, creeping our selves out when as detective Sherlock Holmes would say: “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” We do not know whether Fletcher would live after this terrible assault, but that he was able to give his testimony was heartening enough for the reader, glad that justice would have its way.
- The street personality who invaded the library to steal something. He aroused in us the feelings of pity, sympathy, and mercy especially with the beseeching tone he spoke with the constable and the sergeant.
Thus, ends a tale of a simple game of words, descriptions galore and a bit of a tiny twist in the end through the intelligence and alertness of a sergeant. If you are interested in more book reviews, short story analysis, and author interviews you can visit my blog insaneowl.com. If you would like to buy my books then visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you this week!
Copyright ©2020 Fiza Pathan
Wonderful analysis Fiza. I haven’t read The Library but now would definitely read.
Thanks for your feedback Ma’am. God bless. 🙂
Found the story on the net already. It’s truly fascinating. Read a bit. Will finish by tonight.