The Whites are a content family of father, mother, and adult son who live in the countryside. But, a visit from a friend changes their lives forever.
Before Sergeant Major Morris shows the monkey's paw to the Whites, they all three lean forward eagerly; however, Mrs. White is repulsed by its appearance. Herbert takes it and examines the paw, then his father reaches for it, and after examining it, he places it on a table.
As the last one to own this talisman, the sergeant major explains that he has had his three wishes and tosses it into the fireplace of the Whites. Swiftly, Mr. White snatches it off the fire, and he refuses to be rid of it as the soldier suggests. When he asks how to make a wish, the soldier instructs him, but warns him of the consequences. Mrs. White says jokingly,
"Sounds like the Arabian Nights....Don't you think you might wish for four pairs of hands for me?"
Mr. White draws the talisman from his pocket, and all three family members laugh. But, the sergeant major is alarmed, grabs the arm of Mr. White and reiterates, "Wish for something sensible."
Mr. White replaces the paw in his pocket and the guest and the Whites eat dinner. Afterwards, their guest tells them more tales of his adventures in India. When he departs, Herbert cynically says that if the tale of the monkey's paw is anything like the others of the soldier, "we shan't make much of it." Then, he pretends to be horrified after Mr. White said his friend begged him to throw it away. He adds flippantly,
"Why, we're going to be rich, and famous and happy. Wish to be emperor, Father, to begin with; then you can't be bossed around."
His mother, having been so teased, chases Herbert around the table. Pulling the paw out of his pocket, Mr. White says that he does not know what to wish for. Herbert suggests that he wish for the amount that the Whites owe on their mortgage: "Wish for two hundred pounds, then; that'll just do it."
Somewhat ashamed of his credulity, Mr. White holds up the paw and makes this wish. There is a quick sound of piano keys struck; the father suddenly utters "a shuddering cry" and tells his wife and son that the paw moved and twisted in his hand.
Herbert is unimpressed. He says that he does not see the money, and placing the paw on the table, he adds, "and I bet I never shall." Mrs. White is more anxious, and she tries to calm her husband, telling him it must have been his imagination that the paw moved. When the wind blows harder outdoors, Mr. White becomes nervous at the sound of a door banging upstairs. In fact, "[A] silence depressing settled upon all three."
After the parents go upstairs to bed, Herbert grasps the monkey's paw; he shivers slightly, releases the paw and wipes his hand upon his coat. Then, he, too, goes upstairs to his room, disturbed by what has just happened.
But, the next morning Herbert laughs at his fears of the previous night. Even the atmosphere of the rooms seems improved from the night before. Mr. White, on the other hand, yet shows some discomfort; he recalls that Morris said that things happen that might just be attributed to coincidence. But, Herbert jokes about the money that will soon arrive, and Mrs. White laughs as she follows him to the door.
At the end of the day, Mr. White returns to his fixation on how the paw moved while Mrs. White watches a man outside who pauses at their gate, then walks past it. After doing this three more times, he resolutely opens the gate and knocks on their door.
The Whites are informed that Herbert has been killed at work. The parents are given a check for compensation: £ 200, the amount for which Mr. White wished the night before. Horrified at the turn of events and the coincidence of the amount of the check, as well as devastated by the death of their only child, Mr. White faints as his wife shrieks.
Now, their lives are ruined; the Whites have buried their son and are alone. As the days pass, one evening Mrs. White realizes that they have two wishes left, and she demands that her husband wish for Herbert to be returned to them. Fearfully, Mr. White wishes, and collapses in a chair. After hours, there is a sound at their front door; "It's Herbert," his wife screams, running to open it. But, hearing some horrific sounds outside, the husband realizes that they forgot to wish that Herbert would be restored to life as he was before the accident, so he rushes for the paw and desperately makes his third wish. The horrible noises and rattling of a chain stop.