Mr. Harris runs and owns a bookstore, though he remains in the basement. A young man named Mr. Clark is a regular patron of the bookstore, and though he cannot afford it yet, he comes to look at a book he hopes to buy, Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Empson. A married couple enters, hoping to build a respectable book collection. The man continually repeats that he once used to love reading, though he does not display much knowledge of literature.
Mr. Clark leads the man around the bookstore and helpfully offers him good recommendations of what sets to purchase. The man is envious of Mr. Clark’s clear education and superior knowledge. Mr. Clark leaves, but not before talking to Mr. Harris about the Empson book he hopes to buy in the future. Though the book is clearly of no interest to the man, he asks Mr. Harris if he can purchase it. Though Mr. Harris promised Mr. Clark the book, he does not hesitate to sell it to the couple instead.
The mundane and petty cruelties of human envy and greed are displayed in this story. The man is jealous of Mr. Clark's education and apparent intelligence. In a petty attempt to strike down Mr. Clark, the man purchases the book in which Mr. Clark has obviously expressed great interest. Mr. Harris promises the book to Clark as well, but as soon as the man offers to purchase it, Mr. Harris disregards his promise and sells it without hesitating. Thus, the man displays his jealousy, and Mr. Harris displays his greed.
Seven Types of Ambiguity is a real work of literary criticism written by William Empson in 1930 and is regarded as a highly influential work of its time. Jackson's allusion to this book in the short story is interesting, as the motives of Mr. Harris and the male customer are seemingly ambiguous. Only Mr. Clark's motives are clear: he is a kind young man who is eager to assist the male customer, loves reading, and hopes to save enough money to buy Seven Types of Ambiguity in the future.
However, the reader does not learn much about the man's background; the reader only knows that he wishes to buy books, and he rather defensively explains to Mr. Clark why he has not had time to read extensively in the past. This defensiveness, particularly in the face of Mr. Clark's superior knowledge and literature expertise, makes the reader aware of the man's potential jealousy of Mr. Clark. This suspicion is reinforced by the man's unreasonable and sudden desire to buy Mr. Clark's reserved book—a petty form of retaliation for the feeling of inferiority, perhaps. This antagonist appears to resent Mr. Clark for his education and intellect. Though this is never expressed explicitly, the male customer's desire to purchase Seven Types of Ambiguity— he has no vested interest in such a book given that he is a pleasure reader, not an academic reader—indicates a malicious intent. He wishes to buy this book simply so that Mr. Clark cannot own it himself.
Likewise, Mr. Harris's motivation to sell the book is also ambiguous. Perhaps he simply values sales over personal camaraderie and honor. Mr. Clark clearly believes that Mr. Harris will keep the book in question under reserve for him. However, as soon as Mr. Clark has cleared the door, Mr. Harris is only too happy to sell the book to the male customer. This underhanded move may be caused by Mr. Harris's simple desire to make money (there is no guarantee that Mr. Clark will return), but may also stem from more sinister intentions. Again, Jackson keeps Harris's presence and intentions ambiguous and hints at his potential for malice and evil. Human nature apparently lets people be fickle and ignore their promises.