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, as his son, having set up the situation, tries to relieve the ensuing tension: “Well, I don’t see the money, and I bet I never shall.” These words turn out to be literally and bitterly accurate.
Jacobs introduces the paw into the story through a device familiar from folklore—the figure of the traveler who has returned from distant and exotic lands with a strange story to tell. He also uses the number three, a number traditionally associated with mystery in superstition and folklore. As part of his curse, the holy man has specified that three men shall have three wishes each, as if to intensify the number’s troubling power. In addition, there are three visitors to the Whites’ home: Morris, the man from the factory, and the final visitor.
“The Monkey’s Paw” is most effective for what Jacobs leaves unsaid and accomplishes offstage. Nothing is known of the first man to utilize the paw, except that his third wish was for death. Morris admits that he, too, made three wishes, and his grim manner implies that he regrets his choices, but the details are never explained. The reader learns what the Whites wish for but never witness the gruesome results. A diffident lawyer for the factory brings news of Herbert’s death, but Herbert’s condition is only implied by Mr. White’s reluctant admission that he could only recognize him by his clothing. Of the condition of the being—several days dead—who knocks at the Whites’ door, the reader can only guess. In each case, Jacobs leaves the reader to imagine something much worse than he can effectively describe.
Horror writer Stephen King based his 1983 novel Pet Sematary on “The Monkey’s Paw.” Readers may want to compare its more expansive and more graphically explicit treatment with Jacobs’s concise, understated approach.