In "The Monkey's Paw," how does W. W. Jacobs create suspense or tension in the story?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Author W. W. Jacobs makes use of characterization, setting, foreshadowing, mood, and imagery to create tension and suspense in "The Monkey's Paw."

Initially, the weather is foreboding as Mr. White calls attention to the wind of a storm outside. He does so in his effort to distract his son Herbert from the "fatal mistake" he has made in their chess game. Mr. White's impetuous move of his chess piece, which he realizes too late will allow Herbert to "check" his king, foreshadows his first and second wishes on the monkey's paw, which he also does not take the time to think through. The fact that caution is not a quality of Mr. White's is also suggested when he retrieves the monkey's paw from the fireplace after his friend Sergeant Major Morris relates the sinister history of the paw and tosses it onto the fire. Later, when Mr. White talks with his wife and she asks him if he gave their guest anything for the paw, there is more foreshadowing. "'A trifle,' said he [Mr. White], coloring slightly. 'He didn't want it, but I made him take it. And he pressed me again to throw it away.'" Clearly, Mr. White does not heed warnings, and this character trait hints of his misfortune later on.

There is more foreshadowing after Mr. White makes his first wish: "the wind was higher than ever, and the old man started nervously at the sound of a door banging upstairs. A silence unusual and depressing settled upon all three." This sinister mood helps to create tension in the narrative. The highest moment of suspense comes after Herbert dies, and Mrs. White wants her husband to wish their son back to life. Unfortunately, Mrs. White does not thoroughly think about the possible variables involved in this desire, despite her husband's question: "If he was too terrible for you to see then, how now?" This question foreshadows the terrible image of Herbert's mangled body. There is also aural imagery, which creates great suspense as Mr. White hurries to prevent his wife's attempt to open the door and let Herbert enter the house:

He heard the chain rattle back and the bottom bolt drawn slowly and stiffly from the socket. . . . A perfect fusillade of knocks reverberated through the house, and he heard the scraping of a chair as his wife put it down in the passage against the door. He heard the creaking of the bolt as it came slowly back.

After Mr. White makes his third wish for Herbert to remain dead, the knocking stops and "a cold wind rushed up the staircase. . . . The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road." The mood of great despair and loneliness is thus conveyed with aural and visual imagery.

tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In W. W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw," tension and suspense are created through foreshadowing, characterization, and mood. First, when Mrs. White asks Sergeant Major Morris if his three wishes were actually granted, the description of his reaction to this question is as follows:

"And did you really have the three wishes granted?" asked Mrs. White.

"I did," said the sergeant major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth.

Both foreshadowing and characterization are used to create suspense at this moment because of the way Morris acts. His behavior suggests that the consequences of his wishes must have been terrible; and if the paw is used again, there will be dire future implications. In fact, when Mr. White asks how to use the paw, the way Morris explains the process of wishing is accompanied with a warning, as follows:

Hold it up in your right hand and wish aloud. . . but I warn you of the consequences.

Sergeant Major Morris continues to act with fear and caution as the Whites take more interest in the paw. He also warns them a couple of other times to either forget to wish for something completely or at least to wish for something sensible. Again, Morris's behavior not only warns the Whites of problems wrapped up in wishing with the paw, but also foreshadows possible future problems.

Finally, mood is used to create suspense in the story through descriptions of the weather and the Whites' behavior. For example, after Mr. White wishes for money, the men calmly sit down by the fire to smoke their pipes, but the weather and Mr. White's behavior are described as follows:

Outside, the wind was higher than ever, and the old man started nervously at the sound of a door banging upstairs. A silence unusual and depressing settled upon all three, which lasted until the old couple rose to retire for the night.

As the family waits to see if wishing on the paw will produce results, Mr. White seems tense and easily startled. Also, forceful winds, along with a dark and startling atmosphere in the house, create suspense and tension for the characters after the wish is made. These descriptions suggest there might be a supernatural and destructive connection between wishing on the paw and nature. Indeed, the anticipation of waiting for the results of the wish create tension and suspense on its own as well.