Apart from one unfortunate line, this famous story is absolutely perfect – a miniscule flaw, admittedly, but a telling one. Nevertheless, The Insanity of Jones still ranks as one of the most spellbinding tales of suspense ever composed, even if its suspense is a matter of when not what. Its genius resides in its convictions; that is to say, our narrator is utterly convinced that John Enderby Jones can see something we cannot see. In that particular argument our narrator cannot lose. What Jones sees, however, and more importantly why, shall remain the subject of unflagging speculation.
Our Jones leads a "strictly impersonal life" in the type of clerical position which, in our modern times renowned for dehumanizing the mediocre with bureaucracy and insignificance, has spawned many a maniac. We know nothing of his family or his future, in no small part because Jones cares little for what has yet to happen; instead, he is focused on what has already happened. But if Jones floats in the plainest and most colorless of ponds, what events could possibly have shaped his turning squarely towards the past? We must answer that question by first understanding what Jones sees as his anteriority:
Among the things that he knew, and therefore never cared to speak or speculate about, one was that he plainly saw himself as the inheritor of a long series of past lives, the net result of painful evolution, always as himself, of course, but in numerous different bodies each determined by the behaviour of the preceding one. The present John Jones was the last result to date of all the previous thinking, feeling, and doing of John Jones in earlier bodies and in other centuries. He pretended to no details, nor claimed distinguished ancestry, for he realised his past must have been utterly commonplace and insignificant to have produced his present; but he was just as sure he had been at this weary game for ages as that he breathed, and it never occurred to him to argue, to doubt, or to ask questions.
Why did he never consider that his sentiments might be flawed? Do we all from time to time not have doubts about our dearest convictions? A rather simplistic mind will answer that precisely because Jones does not have doubts is why the story is not called 'The Wisdom of Jones' or 'The Clairvoyance of Jones,' or even plainly 'The Knowledge of Jones.' But Jones does harbor doubts: he wonders throughout our tale as to whether he may be deceived, especially by a man whom our narrator describes as unflatteringly as possible, a being only known as the Manager.
Perhaps it is important to note that Jones and his supervisor are strangers ("Jones had never exchanged a single word with him, or been so much as noticed ... by the great man"); indeed, in personality they are as opposite as two members of the same species could be. While Jones remains lean in both physique and conversation, the Manager is fat, myopic, bald, sweaty ("in hot weather a sort of thin slime covered his cheeks") and red-faced, purple-faced "in moments of temper, which were not infrequent." Lest we think him the epitome of pasty privileges – the description befits a debauched Roman emperor – a sidelight on the Manager reveals him to be "an excellent business man, of sane judgment and firm will." What is the truth behind this portraiture? And why can't the truth be both? Why can't an oppressive man (our Manager is "coarse, brutal almost to savagery, without consideration for others, and ... often cruelly unjust") who has never sullied his fingers with daily labor also excel in his particular field? Because we need an unadulterated villain, a monolith of evil, to be able to side with Jones and his instincts about, well, a prior existence in which he and the Manager were acquainted under very different circumstances. Such ambiguity would never survive a lesser tale; but The Insanity of Jones is not about ambiguity, it is the exemplary short text that can be read two entirely different ways with equal plausibility. So when Jones retreats as he does every night to his dinner in a French restaurant in Soho, he senses a "half-remembered appointment." This turns out to be with a former colleague, "an elderly clerk who had occupied the next desk to his own when he first entered the service of the insurance company," a man by the name of Thorpe. He sits down at Thorpe's table and they engage in serious exchanges, although those in their vicinity do not quite see it that way:
There was a wonderful soothing quality in the man’s voice, like the whispering of a great wind, and the clerk felt calmer at once. They sat a little while longer, but he could not remember that they talked much or ate anything. He only recalled afterwards that the head waiter came up and whispered something in his ear, and that he glanced round and saw the other people were looking at him curiously, some of them laughing, and that his companion then got up and led the way out of the restaurant.
Where this lonesome duo ventures and what the ultimate subject of their dialogues involves shall not be revealed here. Despite his somewhat cadaverous appearance, Thorpe clearly holds some sway over his erstwhile coworker, who acknowledges Thorpe as a key component to an understanding of his multifaceted reality. That Thorpe "had been dead at least five years" does not bother Jones, although it may indeed bother us.
Reading Blackwood is invariably a rewarding experience because even his missteps are the errors of genius. The wayward line in Jones's narrative is less of a line and more of a phrase, but it taints the substance of what we are witnessing with wholly unnecessary psychological mumbo-jumbo (mumbo-jumbo is too massive and unwieldy; perhaps we should say mumbo-mini). What may be most interesting about Mr. Jones is how he resists reveling in publications that would buttress his world view ("he read no modern books on the subjects that interested him") or in finding acceptance in a group of like-minded individuals ("nor belonged to any society that dabbled with half-told mysteries"). No, no one can quite relate to Jones, because he offers almost nothing to the outside world, firmly ensconced as he is in a realm within. A realm, I might add, of a thousand screaming souls who all coalesce into the screaming of just one.