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This story begins at night with the White family safe and warm inside their home while a storm rages outside. The contrast between the coziness inside the house and the threat outside the house suggests that danger is coming from outside. Mr. White and Herbert are playing chess, and Mr. White, "seeing a fatal mistake [in moving one of his chess pieces] after it was too late," tries to distract Herbert during the game. This comment foreshadows Mr. White's first wish. When Sgt. Maj. Morris arrives, the action of the story begins, and we learn the strange history of the monkey's paw.
Consider how different the mood for the story would be if the story had been set during a bright, sunny day. What would we have to fear? The author wants to create a suspenseful atmosphere in the opening paragraphs to prepare us for the bizarre events to come.
Unpleasant weather is always a sure sign that something bad is going to happen. We read that "the night was cold and wet." The reference to such unpleasant conditions is a portentous suggestion that something sinister may occur later in the story. By contrasting the somewhat pleasant conditions in the White household with the conditions outside, the reader is alerted to the fact that things may not be as comfy as they seem. This much becomes evident when we discover that Mr White and his son, Herbert, are involved in an intricate pastime. The cut-and-thrust of the game adds an element of tension to the story.
The two men are playing chess and Mr White's actions, especially, draw attention. He realizes that he has made a bad move and tries to distract his son, but his blunder is discovered and he loses the game. Mr White's resultant outburst heightens the tension and gives a clear indication that all is not well. The fact that he "bawled ... with sudden and unlooked-for-violence" makes the reader aware of the possibility that more of the same might occur at some future point in the story.
In addition, the language suggests some danger and paints a bleak picture. Mr White, for example, "possessed ideas about the game involving radical changes" and puts "his king into such sharp and unnecessary perils." These descriptions predict future danger and risk. Furthermore, Herbert surveys the board "grimly" and Mr White's use of strong adjectives such as "beastly" and "out-of-the-way" adds to the negative mood. This also suggests that the Whites live in an isolated area and are, obviously, not only in some discomfort, but are also at risk. Further statements such as "the gate banged" and "heavy footsteps came toward the door," add an ominous quality. Something unpleasant is surely going to happen.
The atmosphere appears to be one of happy family bliss (the fire "burns brightly"; the mother speaks "soothingly"), but at the same time, there is underlying tension. Note that the father and son are playing chess--a game that naturally calls up the idea of war--and that the father is exploding with "unlooked-for violence" about where they live.
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