How are "The Monkey's Paw" and "By the Waters of Babylon similar and different?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Although on the surface “The Monkey’s Paw” and “By the Waters of Babylon” have little in common, both stories are about the hubris of mankind, and how our superstitions limit us.  Both stories have a dark mood.

In “The Monkey’s Paw” a family has the opportunity to make three wishes on an ancient cursed talisman.  The soldier who brings the monkey’s paw to the family tells them what it’s for, and how to use it, but warns them not to use it.

"I threw it on the fire. If you keep it, don't blame me for what happens. Pitch it on the fire like a sensible man."

Naturally, they do not listen.  Their greed makes them think of all of the benefits they could have if they used the paw, not of the consequences of using it.  When a wish is made, the son dies.  A second wish is made to bring him back to life (by the wife), and in the last possible moment, a third wish has to be made to unmake the second (by the husband).

Mr. White realized that his wife made a terrible mistake when she wished her son back to life, because what came back was likely a horror beyond their worst imaginings and not their son.  It is a perfect example of Jacobs’ theme—just because you can do it, does not mean you should.

Hubris is pride to the point of self-destruction.  The Whites do not listen when they are told that the monkey’s paw is dangerous.  They think they know better.  They are greedy and they cause their own doom

This is also the theme Benét brings to us in “By the Waters of Babylon.”  In this story, we are not in the past but in some post-apocalyptic future.  We do not know what has happened, but there are references to “Great Burning.” It is clear that there was some event that caused people to revert to a much more primitive lifestyle that is superstition-based.  When the main character goes on his quest and finds the city of the gods, it turns out to only be New York, before the apocalypse.  He describes these “gods” as restless.

They burrowed tunnels under rivers—they flew in the air. With unbelievable tools they did giant works—no part of the earth was safe from them, for, if they wished for a thing, they summoned it from the other side of the world. 

The destructive nature of mankind is evident in the narrator’s perspective, especially “no part of the earth was safe.”  He asks if these gods or men of the past were happy.  When he sees the “dead god,” and realizes that they are not gods at all.  He decides that his civilization needs to learn from the “books and the writings” of the Dead Places.  The implication is that his people need to learn from the mistakes of the past, from the hubris that caused the world to almost be destroyed the first time.

Although these two stories are very different on the face, they have common elements and themes.  Both are about superstition, and thematically relate to the effects of hubris.  The lesson we can learn from both of these stories is that we should learn from other people’s mistakes, and not let our greed lead to our destruction.

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Benet's story, there is a line which depicts the lesson of both Benet's and Jacobs's stories: "Truth is a hard deer to hunt." For, as the young priest and Mr. and Mrs. White learn, "[I]t is better that the truth come little by little." For, the man seated in the chair that the young priest discovers in the Land of the Gods has tragically learned the truth in but a brief time. Likewise, the Whites learn a terrible truth about the magic of the monkey's paw in only a couple of days.

  • Here are some other similarities:

THEMES

Themes of Obscurantism - In both stories the reader does not grasp the full import of the author's message until the end. Also, the characters do not understand the mysteries that surround them (Place of the Gods, the limits of the magical powers of the monkey's paw).

Themes of Superstition - Original beliefs about the Place of the Gods and the monkey's paw are not understood.

The Danger of Power - The power of light and metal and water has overwhelmed the good judgment of the gods in Benet's narrative. In Jacobs's story, Mr. White and Herbert do not fear the power of the talisman and they do not exert good judgment. For instance, after Mr. White wishes for a certain sum of money, Herbert jokes to his father, "I expect you'll find the cash tied up in a big bag in the middle of your bed."

CHARACTERIZATION

While the young priest is confident like Herbert, he does have some fears. But, he declares, "It is better to lose one's life than one's spirit." Herbert must also feel similarly as, after his father goes to bed, he gazes at the dying fire and sees "faces in it." He grasps the monkey's paw and "with a little shiver...wiped his hand..." 

Both the Whites and the narrator tempt fate--the Whites take the monkey's paw despite the sergeant's warnings; the young priest goes to the land of the gods knowing the danger, but feels it better to lose his life than his spirit.

TONE

Both stories are pessimistic.

***********************

  • Here are some differences:

CHARACTERIZATION

The priest and his son both are wiser than the White family; for, they prepare themselves for dangers, and they discuss the dangers that exist in their lives.

When the young priest returns, he feels that they must rebuild again; the narrator declares, "My hunger for knowledge burned in me"; however, Mr. and Mrs. White, without the younger generation, are totally defeated.

The tragic flaws of the Whites are individual as some people would be too superstitious to keep the monkey's paw. On the other hand, the people in the priest's world seem doomed to repeat history.

SETTING/ATMOSPHERE

The atmosphere of "The Monkey's Paw" is macabre and ghostly; that of Benet's story is mysterious and futuristic in its revelations. Tragedy strikes the Whites; tragedy will come for the priest's family as they talk of using the metal and their new knowledge, dooming themselves to creating what will likely be again destroyed.

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