What does Herbert see in the fire light the night the first wish is made, and what might these images foreshadow?

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jdslinky eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs, the White family is presented with a niggling question: to wish or not wish? Sergeant Major Morris comes for a visit and discusses his worldwide exploits with the family. While chatting, he mentions the monkey's paw that he came to own and hints at its importance to the plot, "It had a spell put on it by an old fakir,... He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow," (2). This is not only foreshadowing, but perhaps the theme of the short story, as well.

Sergeant Morris continues to make it very clear that the talisman's powers are not to be taken lightly. In explaining how he came to possess the paw, he describes the wishes of the owner before him: "I don't know what the first two [wishes] were, but the third was for death. That's how I got the paw," (2).

If that information was not enough, Morris further warns the White family of the paw's ominous characteristics by attempting to destroy the mummified paw by throwing it on the fire. However, Mr. White fetched it out of the flames immediately, to Morris's dismay: "Better let it burn," (2). He continues with the cautionary statement, "If you keep it, don't blame me for what happens. Pitch it on the fire again, like a sensible man," (2).

Of course, the Whites are too intrigued to pay heed to Morris's warnings, and after he leaves, they begin discussing what they should wish for. As a family, they decide to wish for enough money to clear the mortgage on their house: 200 pounds. Mr. White is thrown off by the movement of the paw in his hand as he wishes, "As I wished it twisted in my like a snake," (3), which is further foreshadowing of the trouble the paw will bring. Noises upstairs and the late hour bring Mr. and Mrs. White to the close of their evening.

Herbert stays awake a while longer than his parents and sits in front of the dying fire in the darkness. As he stares at the flames, monkeylike images appear there, astonishing and scaring him at the same time. "The last face was so horrible and so simian that he gazed at it in amazement. It got so vivid that, with a little uneasy laugh, he felt on the table for a glass containing a little water to throw over it," (3). This foreshadows the terrible events to come.

The next day, Herbert is killed at work, and his parents are given $200 compensatory pounds. Therefore, the simian images and strange feelings Herbert experienced while watching the flames foreshadowed his impending doom. It can also be inferred that if the family had left fate alone and not interfered with it (i.e. by wishing on the paw), Herbert may not have suffered an early demise.