illustration of an open-faced monkey's paw with a skull design on the palm

The Monkey's Paw

by W. W. Jacobs

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How do story elements of character, setting, and plot contribute to the theme of "The Monkey's Paw"?

"The Monkey's Paw" is a story about three people (Mr. White, his son Herbert and his wife) who learn that they should be careful what they wish for because they might just get it. The Whites are given the monkey's paw by Sergeant-Major Morris – who had served in India with Mr. White – as a gift and, at first, do not believe that it has magical properties. They experiment with the paw by wishing for small sums of money and for Herbert to become a famous singer, but the wishes do not come true. One night, Herbert goes out and doesn't come back home until several days later; he explains that he ran into some friends and got drunk with them, but Mrs.

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The theme of the story is summed up by the anonymous adage in the epigraph: "Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it." We do not necessarily know what is good for us or what would make us happy and are ill-advised to tamper with the workings of fate.

The setting contributes to this theme with an atmosphere of cosy domesticity. At the beginning of the story, the fire burns brightly and the blinds are drawn against a cold wet night, creating an oasis of warmth and comfort. The Whites have no more serious problems than who wins their chess game.

The carefree, rather skeptical characters of all three Whites also contribute to this effect. When they are given the three wishes, they do not even know what to wish for, even if they decide to believe in the power of the monkey's paw. They treat it as a joke and even when they decide to wish for something sensible, it is a fairly small sum of money they do not really need.

The two elements of setting and character, therefore, establish that the Whites did not need the three wishes and were perfectly happy before they got them. It is the plot, particularly the drastic twist of Harry's death, that throws them into turmoil and demonstrates all too brutally how much worse their life can become when their wishes come true.

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In literature, often the supernatural, though fiction, will tell us truths about our lives. A consistent method of identifying themes is to apply the supernatural concepts that make up the plot of the story, in this case fate, wishes, and magical fakirs, to our own lives and those of the real people around us. In The Monkey’s Paw, the Sergeant-Major states that the fakir cursed the paw to show people that they cannot change fate and punish them for trying. Applying that concept to the real world, we could conclude that the story is condemning our human folly, our selfishness, and our arrogance in what we know about the world, all of which Jacobs illustrates using not only plot but character and setting as well.

The opening scene shows Mr. White and his son playing chess.

The father, [Mr. White], whose ideas about the game involved some very unusual moves, putting his king into such sharp and unnecessary danger . . .

In the above quotation, Mr. White’s character is introduced upfront as a man who is comfortable taking risks. Another characteristic is revealed as well when, after taking one step too far and putting his king in a position to lose the game, Mr. White tries the tactic of obfuscation. In doing so he demonstrates his willingness to create problematic situations without wanting to face the consequences. This is repeated later when Mr. White makes a wish on the Monkey’s Paw with very little hesitation after repeated warnings from his friend.

In the descriptions of the settings, especially in Part 3, Jacobs often uses...

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very cold and very hotimagery.

He sat until he could no longer bear the cold . . .

The candle, which had almost burned to the bottom . . .

The old woman, with burning eyes . . .

These descriptors are creating, in addition to the drama from the plot, a different sort of battle: one of dark and light, good and evil, to wish or not to wish, all of which could represent the human condition, our constant indecisiveness, and our inability to know the difference between right and wrong.

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The theme for Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw" can be taken from what Morris says about the reason that the fakir creates the talisman:

"He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow."

As stated above, the purpose behind the enchanted paw is to show that when people tempt, challenge, or interfere with fate, sorrow is the result. The characters, setting and plot all work within the story to prove the fakir's prophecy. First of all, the Whites are tempted by the paw's ability to grant three wishes (characters). Then, the conflict begins when Mr. White makes his first wish for two hundred pounds (plot). Fate responds by providing the two hundred pounds only at the sorrowful cost of the son's life--Herbert White.

The setting reflects the theme when the weather's natural elements change from being just cold and wet to the wind blowing "higher than ever" after the first wish is made. Therefore, the weather's hyperactivity responds to supernatural tampering, which also creates tension between the characters and suspense within the plot. Furthermore, Major Morris tells Mr. White that "things happened so naturally . . . that you might if you wished attribute it to coincidence." As a result, Herbert dies within the setting of his work at a factory when he falls into a machine that kills him. Fate seems to use the setting of Herbert's work as a way to implement a seemingly natural accident. Also, receiving two hundred pounds from Herbert's employers as compensation for his death is logical. So even though the wishes are supernatural, fate grants wishes through natural or reasonable means within the setting. 

Finally, the plot thickens when Mrs. White realizes there are two more wishes she can use to remedy her pain and suffering over her son's death. With each wish also comes a more dreaded and "natural" result. This creates tension and suspense within the plot while also connecting the setting with the characters. For instance, when Mr. White wishes that his son is alive again, he realizes that Herbert's body would need to be put back together after the accident in the machine. If Mr. White couldn't identify his son except for his clothes, then Herbert might come back in horrifying physical and unidentifiable shape. The conflict between the Whites and the supernatural is resolved when Mr. White wishes for Herbert to disappear and the elderly couple lives in despair and loneliness on their "quiet and deserted road." Thus, the fakir's prophecy comes true, and the Whites are left with their sorrow after interfering with fate. 

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