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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In "The Monkey's Paw," what role does fate play in the lives of the White family?

In "The Monkey's Paw," the White family underestimates the power of fate with tragic results. Disregarding the warnings about the monkey's paw, Mr. White makes his initial wish for two hundred pounds, only to find his wish fulfilled through the death of his son. Ultimately, this story focuses on the foolhardiness of attempting to control fate and manipulate it to one's personal interest. Those that try to do so meet with great misfortune.

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"The Monkey's Paw" is a story all about fate and the destructive consequences that befall those who would wish to manipulate fate to their own self-interest.

As the story opens, the White family is visited by Sergeant-Major Morris, who shows the family the monkey's paw (which can be viewed as an instrument of fate), designed with the intention to

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

The paw grants three users each with three wishes, but Morris warns that making those wishes results in misfortune. He then attempts to destroy the monkey's paw by throwing it in the fire.

As the paw comes into Mr. White's possession, it becomes clear that the family does not take Morris's warnings seriously, as Mrs. White, while preparing dinner, makes a comment about wishing additional hands for herself, while their son, Herbert, suggests his father wish to become an emperor. In the end, Herbert suggests he wish for two hundred pounds and his father does. Tragedy follows as the wish is granted: Herbert dies in a work accident, and his family is awarded the two hundred pounds in compensation for their loss. Driven by grief, Mrs. White asks her husband to use the second wish to bring back their son, but horrified at the manner by which the monkey's pawn has twisted that wish, her husband uses the last wish to undo the effect of the second.

In this story, the monkey's paw allows people to twist fate according to their wishes, but doing so carries a heavy cost, with the fulfillment of these wishes resulting in great misfortune.

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Fate is generally understood to be the occurrence of events outside a person's control. Many interpretations regard fate as being the predetermined course of one's life—destiny, that is. As such, it is deemed to be under the control of a supernatural force.

General Major Morris has experienced the power of this supernatural force and tries to warn the Whites against tampering with destiny. The Whites, however, flippantly ignore his dire injunction and joke about it. Mr. White experiences some of the paw's power when the object moves in his hand once he wishes for two hundred pounds to settle his bond. It becomes quite evident that this invisible and powerful force does exist, as proven by the tragic events which follow.

Mr. White's wish comes true but at a terrible price. Herbert, his son, dies in a horrific accident at work, and his employers present the family a compensatory two-hundred-pound check. Both Mr. and Mrs. White are devastated. Mrs. White is now convinced of the paw's powers, and in a moment of utter madness brought upon her by the shocking trauma she has experienced, she practically forces Mr. White to ask for Herbert's return.

Mr. White realizes the full horror of what his wife has wished for and, in utter desperation, uses the paw's final wish to reverse her request. The idea of his son's mutilated and rotting corpse returning is too terrible to imagine.

It is quite ironic that the Whites' initial skepticism has become a frightening reality. The shock and terror that they experience compel them to believe in the existence of mystical forces that rule destiny. In a final ironic twist, they call upon these forces to intervene: Mrs. White calls for Herbert's return, and her husband asks to reverse the wish.

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Fate governs the lives of the entire White family as indeed it does with everyone. Tragically, this is a lesson lost on the Whites. The fakir understood this, as indeed does Sergeant-Major Morris. The fakir placed a spell on the paw to warn people of the dangers of messing around with the forces of fate. There's nothing you can do to defy your destiny, and if you should attempt to do so, the consequences will be dire.

Each member of the White family, however, regards the legend of the monkey's paw as all a bit of a joke, a harmless piece of mumbo-jumbo. But they're dealing with unspecified higher powers, something terrible and primeval that has existed since the dawn of humankind. In defying the role that destiny has determined for them, the Whites are displaying great arrogance. They have neither the right nor the ability to change their respective fates. Their failure to understand this simple lesson leads to tragic consequences for all concerned.

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Fate, as spelled out in the text, controls the lives of all people. This is a deterministic viewpoint, the idea that every action is pre-determined and that all people are simply living out their assigned, fated roles. This view does not necessarily require a higher being, but usually does require some sort of spiritual rulebook that cannot be broken without magic. The monkey's paw itself serves that function; it is a tool which can break determinism and cause an unfated event to happen, albeit with negative consequences.

"It had a spell put on it by an old fakir," said the sergeant-major, "a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it."
(Jacobs, "The Monkey's Paw,"

The White family is the last to be affected by the paw; Herbert White dies to provide an insurance payment to his parents, allowing them to pay off the house. When Mrs. White asks for Herbert to be returned to life, it is not specified that he be healed of his injuries; Mr. White intuits that he will be a horribly mangled monster, not their son. He is unable to change his wife's mind, and so Herbert returns, and Mr. White is forced to use up the last wish to remove Herbert. This shows that, once determinism is broken, fate steps in to return their lives to the equilibrium; the money is received, and it is not acceptable to have the money and Herbert together. Since they were not meant to receive this extra money, something of equal or greater value must be removed.

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