Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Sergeant-Major Morris’s remark that the monkey’s paw is intended to show people that fate rules their lives and that it is unwise to interfere with it is true. Judging by the sergeant-major’s testimony, both he and the first owner of the paw have chosen badly. When Mrs. White jokingly suggests, as she sets the table, that her husband might wish for three extra pairs of hands for her, Morris forcefully points out to Mr. White that if he must wish, he should wish for something sensible. Despite the fact that he does so, fate exacts a terrible retribution.
The magnitude of this retribution is difficult to account for in conventional terms. After all, Mr. White wishes for a relatively insignificant sum of money and with little enthusiasm; he is far from being a greedy man. Traditional ghost stories tend to establish a comfortable balance between mortal transgression and supernatural retribution. “The Monkey’s Paw,” on the other hand, suggests that fate, whatever meaning one chooses to read into the word, operates beyond such familiar concepts as fairness and justice. The author refrains from comment, but his opening and closing scenes—a night “cold and wet” and a road “quiet and deserted”—suggest that humans may be at the mercy of an indifferent, if not actually malevolent, universe. It is these suggestions that render “The Monkey’s Paw” so chilling.