‘The Fatal Cradle’ by Wilkie Collins: Short Story Analysis
‘The Fatal Cradle’ is a humorous yet suspenseful story penned by the nineteenth-century British author Wilkie Collins. Collins is considered the inventor of the detective story, and most of his novels explore the realms of mystery, suspense, and crime. ‘The Fatal Cure’ is a story about how through careful deduction and sound reasoning, Captain Gillop ascertains which newborn baby boy belonged to which family. The short story is narrated in the tone of a detective story. Witnesses are called, and careful analysis of the situations done in the presence of Captain Gillop, Mr. Jolly, the surgeon, and Mrs. Drabble, the stewardess on board the ‘Adventure’. The ‘Adventure’ was bound from London to Australia. Onboard were two women who were later found to be pregnant. Both were due to deliver their babies on the same day. Captain Thomas Gillop is the protagonist of this short story who decides the fate of these babies born aboard his ship based on their weight.
The problem was that while delivering the babies, both boys, the stewardess Mrs. Drabble got mixed up and put both the babies in the same cradle. Both the baby boys look alike, with fair light straw hair over their bodies and watery blue eyes. Both weighed almost the same. However, one of the babies was bald while the other was a bit hairy. Mrs. Drabble couldn’t understand which baby belonged to which mother. That was the scrap she and Mr. Jolly, the surgeon delivering the babies, had gotten themselves into. All this would be sorted out by the protagonist of this short story, Captain Thomas Gillop.
In a very humorous way, Wilkie Collins brings out the astonishment as well as the disgust of Captain Gillop when Mr. Jolly, the ship’s surgeon, declares to him that a woman in the posh cabins, Mrs. Smallchild, was about to deliver a baby. The steward then calls for Mr. Jolly, and we realize that a carpenter’s wife in the steerage, Mrs. Heavysides, was also due to deliver her baby. Please take note of the characters’ names in this short story; Willkie Collins is playing the name game with us. The names of the men were in direct proportion to their disposition and the women, their weight. Of course, by the name Mrs. Smallchild, you would think that the smaller baby would be hers, and the heavier baby would belong to Mrs. Heavysides. However, there was no way in the nineteenth century to ascertain, which baby boy belonged to which women due to the mix up during the delivery on the babies.
The story is narrated to us by the boy who, as a baby, had weighed heavier when he received the news from Captain Gillop, Mr. Jolly, and Mrs. Drabble about the nature of his parentage. He is disgusted that just because he was the heavier of the two babies, he landed up being the son of Mrs. Heavysides and not Mrs. Smallchild. The carpenter, Mr. Simeon Heavysides, had ruined himself and his family after going to Australia. The heavier child now thirty-one years of age felt that if only he had weighed a bit lighter, Captian Gillop would have given him to Mrs. Smallchild, and he would have prospered in life. The narrator is thus aggrieved, remorseful, and a bit jealous of the other baby boy who was fated to be the child of Mrs. Smallchild just because he was the lighter of the two. He makes known his grievance to us in the form of this short story.
Wilkie Collins uses excellent deductive reasoning and creates a suspenseful atmosphere when Mr. Jolly is trying to calm down the disturbed Mrs. Drabble, trying step-by-step to determine what she did with each baby during the hectic evening. During this conversation, Captain Gillop is present with two witnesses, Mr. Sims, a businessman, and Mr. Purling, a sickly gentleman. Captain Gillop grows weary of the situation by the minute. Firstly, he did not like the idea that the women had hidden their pregnancies from him. Now, he had to contend that his ship stewardess wasn’t aware of which child belonged to which couple.
The husbands were pieces of work themselves, which adds a real good dash of humor to the story. Where Mr. Smallchild is concerned, he is only bothered about puking, eating, and sleeping on his way to Australia. When asked what to do with this tense situation, he told the Captain that he would be happy enough if the Captain himself would settle the case. After making his point known on the matter, he goes back to sleep, not even getting up to see his wife. The carpenter in the steerage Mr. Simeon Heavysides when consulted, was more than ready to gift both the babies to Mr. Smallchild because he felt that he had too many children already to deal with. He didn’t care about the baby boys and their actual parentage. However, he knew his wife would not like the whole idea, so he too tells the Captain to settle the situation independently.
Both fathers thus wash their hands off the situation. Captain Gillop makes Mr. Jolly question Mrs. Drabble one last time about her movements during the two deliveries, but she conclusively fails to make head nor tail of the situation. She is hysterical and cannot forgive herself for her serious lapse. It is then that Captain Gillop calls for the steward Pickerel, asks for a weighing scale, his spectacles, a logbook, a pen, and ink. He weighs both the baby boys, the bald one, and the hairy one. The bald one is the heavier of the two. Captain Gillop uses analogy and decides to give the heavier child to the heavier woman and the lighter child to the smaller women. After the witnesses have signed the logbook, the bald child goes to Mrs. Heavysides while the hairy child goes to Mrs. Smallchild. Captain Gillop does not say if his decision is right but feels that he has made a decent decision in such a critical moment. He offers the theory that once they reach Australia, let the parsons and lawyers determine which baby boy should belong to whom.
The deductive reasoning of Captain Gillop is worthy of praise. His methods of analysis throughout the whole procedure of the sorting of infants is narrated very much like a detective story. Wilke Collins has certainly outdone himself. Stories such as these penned by him would influence other detective fiction writers in the future. He has a precise way of creating dialogues spoken between characters, which we similarly find in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories starring Sherlock Holmes. The atmosphere is tense, with the ‘Adventure’ tossing about in the middle of a dark ocean and all decisions taking place at night, lending the tale a spooky atmosphere.
There are many take away points one can draw from this remarkable short story:
- The reason why Mrs. Drabble made a mistake was because Mr. Jolly was confusing her and hurrying her up during the deliveries. She was always going back and forth from Mrs. Smallchild’s side of the cabin to Mrs. Heavysides that ultimately, she mixed up the two boys.
- The two infants ironically took to their fathers. Both the fathers looked quite similar with sandy light straw hair, watery blue eyes, and fair skin. Therefore, it was difficult to tell them apart. There was no birthmark or any other family trademark to distinguish the babies.
- Mr. Purling tried the silly notion of ‘the voice of nature’ experiment with the two mothers. He felt that the mothers would know which baby belonged to them. This was proven wrong, and Mr. Jolly was very vicious on this matter. Both women never realized when in the night, the babies were exchanged from starboard to larboard several times. Thus, the ‘voice of nature’ failed.
- Wilke Collins has not penned this mystery story blandly. He has used comedy as well as excellent character descriptions to bring out the best in his characters. It is always fun to read Captain Gillop mentioning that by getting pregnant, the two women were committing a mutiny aboard his ship. Also, he says that Mr. Jolly was soon going to turn his decent ship into a nursery.
- We are left with a mystery, wondering which baby belonged to which couple. To my understanding, we will never know the true nature of events and will always, like the bald child now thirty-one years of age, speculate whether if he were a bit lighter in weight, he would have been a lucky man.
- Mr. Jolly is the only excited person on board the ‘Adventure’ because of the arrival of two newborn babies. As his name suggests, he is a very jolly person who liked to help whenever and however he could.
- The fact that Mr. Gillop, Mr. Jolly, and Mrs. Drabble were still in touch with the bald baby makes us infer that they, too, were still in the dark of the situation and were guilty of their mistake. Thus, they kept in touch with the infant as he grew up.
- It could be possible that the infant learned about this story from his father or mother or other siblings and wanted to know more about the matter and so got in contact with the Captain, the surgeon, and the stewardess.
I enjoy reading anything and everything by Wilkie Collins. I first learned about him in a literary fiction book The Drood , written by Dan Simmons, in the year 2009. After I finished reading The Drood, I went to the Strand Bookstore to buy the classic works of Wilke Collins, which I got in abundance. My favorite novel of his is The Moonstone. I won’t be lying if I admit I prefer him to Charles Dickens. If you want to know more about my bookish life, you can purchase my memoir from Amazon. It’s called Scenes from a Reclusive Writer and Reader of Mumbai and narrates my life in books and with books.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can visit my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, please visit my websites fizapathanpublishing.us and fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you this weekend!
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