How and where is "black humor" used in the story "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs?

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The black, ironic humor of W. W. Jacobs’ short story “The Money’s Paw” does not become especially apparent until the story is re-read. Such humor includes the following:

  • As Mr. White and his son play chess, Mr. White does not notice that he has made “a fatal mistake [until] after it was too late” to undo the damage. The quoted phrase, of course, is quite relevant, in a darkly humorous way, or at least in an ironic way, to what happens later in the story.
  • The son soon checkmates his father in the game of chess – a development that seems all the more ironic, perhaps in a darkly humorous way, when we realize that the son will be the ultimate “loser” in this story.
  • Trying to reassure her husband after his loss in the game of chess, the wife says comfortingly, "perhaps you'll win the next one." This comment seems ironic, perhaps in a darkly humorous way, when the father ultimately proves to be another true “loser” in this story.
  • The welcome arrival of the sergeant-major at the house contrasts, in an ironic and perhaps darkly humorous way, with the unwelcome arrival of two later visitors to the house.
  • The mangled remains of the dead monkey might be seen as foreshadowing, in an ironic and perhaps a darkly humorous way, the mangled remains of Herbert White – remains which will be mentioned later.
  • One of the most ironic and darkly humorous of all the moments in the story is perhaps the following, in which Herbert, speaking with “pretended horror," urges his father to use the monkey’s paw to make a wish:

"Why, we're going to be rich, and famous, and happy. Wish to be an emperor, father, to begin with; then you can't be henpecked."

This moment can be read as an example of darkly humorous ironic foreshadowing for several reasons; (1) later, Herbert himself will be the source of real horror, not merely of pretended horror; (2) later, as a result of the wish, the family will be anything but happy; (3) later, far from being an emperor, Mr. White will feel powerless; and (4), later, as a result of the wish Mr. White makes here, he will be subject to his wife’s incessant pleas and might thus be called more “henpecked” than ever.

  • Taking comic offense at her son’s word “henpecked,” Mrs. White humorously pursues her son around the table; later she will pursue him in a much more serious and urgent sense.
  • In another darkly humorous comment, Herbert says that he doesn’t see the money the father has wished for and also says that he expects that he never will see the money.  His comment, of course, is ironic, and perhaps darkly humorous, because he will soon be dead and will in fact never see the money actually paid in compensation for his accidental death.
  • Herbert soon jokes about his parents pocketing “ill-gotten gains” – a phrase that can be read as darkly humorous in light of ensuing events.
  • The next morning, Herbert laughs at his fears, but the joke will soon be on Herbert himself.
  • Herbert tells his parents not to get into the money before he gets back; he, of course, will not be coming back.

Other instances of irony or dark humor might be cited in this story, although it seems worth mentioning that this story is not nearly as dark, as humorous, or as darkly humorous as, for instance, Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a work which makes the present tale seem very tame by comparison.


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