Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
W. W. Jacobs was well known during his lifetime for his light, humorous novels and stories about England’s dockyards but is now remembered only for “The Monkey’s Paw.” Although this story exhibits traces of Jacobs’s characteristic humor and insight into the prosaic lives of his subjects, it seems to have been rejected by The Strand, which regularly published his work. Whatever that magazine’s reservations about its unpleasant content, it is recognized today as one of the best supernatural stories ever written and is frequently anthologized.
“The Monkey’s Paw” is effective not only for what Jacobs does but for what he refrains from doing. A master of economical, unobtrusive prose, he sets a cozy scene—a chess game in front of a fire, a cold and windy night outside—in a few strokes. Only later does one realize how closely the rest of the story recapitulates the elements of this first brief scene, as the Whites make their moves in a fateful and fatal game while the forces of darkness swirl just beyond the comfortable circle of their lives.
Alongside Jacobs’s gently humorous touches are macabre examples of what since has come to be known as black humor. One such moment occurs when the sergeant-major panics at Mrs. White’s suggestion that she be granted extra hands—a wish that the reader later realizes might have had a grotesque fulfillment. Another such moment occurs immediately after Mr. White’s first wish,...
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The British Empire
When Jacobs wrote "The Monkey's Paw" a popular saying was "the sun never sets on the British empire." By the early 1900s, England had conquered and colonized countries all over the world. The saying meant that somewhere in the world it was always daylight, and there a British colony could be found. Sergeant-Major Morris returns from India, a British colony, in "The Monkey's Paw." In colonies like India, Hong Kong, Australia, and South Africa, British military men, explorers, archaeologists, and scientists were learning about ancient cultures and traditions little known in the West. Returning from distant colonies to England, they were firsthand sources of information about other peoples and countries for their countrymen curious about exotic far-off lands. The retired colonel just back from India was a staple character in British popular fiction for many years.
The Victorian Era
The last decades of the 19th century, and the first decade or so of the 20th century was, culturally, a very structured time, particularly in England. Jacobs grew up and wrote in an era when people lived by rigid, if unspoken, rules. Religious beliefs were strong, the growing middle class honored hard work and social stability. Men were the wage-earners; women were the housekeepers and in charge of raising the children.
Over six million people lived in London by 1900. Because of the crowded...
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Foreshadowing is a technique in which the writer hints at the events to come. Sometimes, authors depict events early in a story that are really microcosms of the plot that is soon to unfold; other times, writers create this effect by developing an atmosphere that projects the tone of what is about to happen. For instance, a rather cliched example would be a stormy night on the eve of a murder. Jacobs uses both types of foreshadowing techniques in "The Monkey's Paw."
The Whites' chess game at the opening of the story, when Mr. White puts his king into "sharp and unnecessary perils"—and soon sees "a fatal mistake after it was too late"—is a kind of mini-drama, one that tells us what is about to happen in the story.
The Whites (and readers) are given plenty of clues that the monkey's paw is dangerous and powerful. When Herbert asks if Morris has had his three wishes, he only replies, "I have,'' and taps his glass against his teeth. We get the feeling that what happened to him is so terrible that he will not talk about it. Morns also tells the Whites that while he does not know what the first owner of paw wanted in his first two wishes, the man's third wish was for death. Mr. White, despite these warnings, wishes anyway, and feels the monkey's paw move in his hand when he does so.
The atmosphere in the White's little house grows tense and ominous after Mr. White has wished on the paw. The wind rises...
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Compare and Contrast
Early 1900s: England rules over an empire with colonies throughout the world, some of the most important being India and portions of South Africa.
Today: On July 1,1997, Hong Kong, England's last important colony, is returned to Chinese rule.
Early 1900s: Rickets, a bone disease caused by malnutrition, was common among poor children in England.
Today: Rickets is now a rare disease in England. Other once-common childhood illnesses, such as smallpox and polio, have also been eradicated through advances in medicine.
1902: Popular superstitions, like the curse of Egypt's mummies or the powers of India's shamans, arise from Britain's contact with non-Western cultures.
Today: The popularity of alternative medicine and natural healing remedies stems from society's disenchantment with Western medicine, which is based solely on science.
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Topics for Further Study
Research England's occupation and colonization of India. When did it begin? How long did it last? How was England's culture influenced by the information that was brought back from India to the British Isles?
Research the Industrial Revolution, and locate Jacobs' work within it. How did the Industrial Revolution change life in England? Life in the United States? How did it affect families like the Whites in Jacobs's story?
What writers and artists were contemporaries of Jacobs? Did they have similar concerns? Did other writers of his day use the literary devices that Jacobs often employed? Were painters and sculptors operating under the same cultural constraints and assumptions, and how did this affect their work?
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In 1933, The Monkey's Paw was made into a 58-minute, black and white film directed by Wesley Ruggles, produced by RKO, and starring C. Aubrey Smith, Ivan Simpson, Bramwell Fletcher, and Louise Carter.
A British version of The Monkey's Paw, produced in 1948, was directed by Norman Lee and produced by Ernest G. Roy. The film is 64 minutes long, black and white, and the cast included Milton Rosmer, Megs Jenkins, Joan Seton and Norman Shelley.
In 1972 the anthology movie Tales from the Crypt, containing five dramatized stories, adapted "The Monkey's Paw" under the title "Wish You Were Here." The film was directed by Freddie Francis and produced by Cinerama. The cast included Sir Ralph Richardson, Joan Collins and Martin Boddey.
In 1979, the story was adapted as a 19-minute film produced by Martha Moran and now available on video from Phoenix/BFA Films and Video.
Stillife-Gryphon Films produced a 27-minute version of' "The Monkey's Paw" in 1983, available on video from Modern Curriculum Press.
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What Do I Read Next?
Selected Short Stories, reprinted in 1975, contains some of Jacobs' best stones.
The ghost stories of M. R. James are among the finest of the twentieth century. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1905) is his best known collection.
An earlier writer of surpernatural tales is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, whose Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851) is highly regarded by critics in the genre.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Chesterton, G K "W W Jacobs," in A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers, edited by Dorothy Collins, Sheed and Ward, 1953, pp. 28-35.
Adcock, A. St. John. "William Wymark Jacobs," in his The Glory That Was Grub Street: Impressions of Contemporary Authors, Musson Book Company, 1928, pp. 147-57.
Adcock discusses Jacobs's use of humor, horror and sentiment, and praises his stylistic control.
Donaldson, Norman "W W Jacobs," in Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1, edited by E F Bleiler, Scribner, 1985, pp. 383-87.
Donaldson writes a brief description of Jacobs's supernatural tales, including "The Monkey's Paw," which he calls Jacobs's best.
Harding, James. "The Monkey's Paw," in The Reference Guide to Short Fiction, edited by Noelle Watson, St James, 1994, p. 806.
A short essay on story; book also includes entry on W. W Jacobs and a bibliography.
Priestley, J. B. "Mr. W. W. Jacobs," in his Figures in Modern Literature, Books for Libraries Press, 1970, pp 103-23.
Priestley argues that, in his humorous stories, Jacobs created a miniature world of his own where his comedic skills could be best displayed.
Pritchett, V S "W W Jacobs," in his Books in General, Chatto & Windus, 1953, pp. 235-1.
Pritchett provides an appreciative overview of Jacobs's work as a writer, calling him "one...
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