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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What is the message or theme in “The Monkey's Paw”? How does the author get the message across to the reader?

Quick answer:

The message of “The Monkey's Paw” is to be careful what you wish for. The author gets the message across to the reader by showing us the negative consequences of the wishes the characters make.

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The action of “The Monkey's Paw ” constitutes a pretty stark illustration of the age-old maxim “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.” Throughout the course of the story, the members of the White family make a wish on the eponymous magical talisman, only to...

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end up with much more than they bargained for.

The first wish, made by Mr. White, involves wishing for enough money to pay for the mortgage. In due course, he does indeed receive the sum he wished for. Unfortunately, and tragically, he only gets this money by way of financial compensation for his son's fatal accident at work. Mr. White wished for something, and he's got it, albeit not in the way he intended.

The crestfallen Whites then make another wish on the monkey's paw, this time to bring their son back from the dead. But when they hear the insistent knocking sound at the front door, they realize that though Herbert has indeed come back from the dead, he won't be how they remembered him. It's never actually spelled out, but one can assume that he looks like some kind of zombie.

It is at that moment that Mr. White makes the third and final wish on the monkey's paw. All of a sudden, the knocking stops, and when the Whites venture outside, there's no one there.

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It's worth noting that a story can have multiple messages or themes all at once. In any case, the message that really stands out for me can be expressed in the old adage: "be careful what you wish for." There is a cruel irony at work throughout "The Monkey's Paw" in how it grants wishes in such a way that it would ruin the lives of the ones doing the wishing.

In this story, the Whites do not treat the Monkey's Paw with the gravity that this talisman deserves, regardless of the warning given by the sergeant-major. Indeed, at one point, Mr. White's wife suggests that he wish for her to have "four pairs of hands" while his son suggests he wish to become an Emperor. In the end, Mr. White resolves to make a more humble wish for two hundred pounds, never dreaming the tragedy that would ensue. His family would receive the two hundred pounds in compensation for the death of their son.

This story is, at its heart, a cautionary tale about unexpected consequences and the ways in which achieving what we wish for might prove catastrophic in ways we would not expect. This theme is expressed within the story's very plot and the vicious irony at work within it.

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"The Monkey's Paw" is a rare story in that the theme is actually stated in the story. Sgt. Maj. Morris tells the Whites that the old fakir who put the spell on the paw said, "Fate rules people's lives and those who interfere with fate do so to their sorrow." The message is a warning, but Mr. White doesn't believe it. Even though Sgt. Maj. Morris makes it clear that he tried wishing with unfortunate results and he tries to throw the paw on the fire,  Mr. White makes a wish for 200 pounds only to find that he receives the money when Herbert dies in a factory accident. According to the fakir, then, because Mr. White had wished for something he should not have had, his son lost his life.

The second wish that Mrs. White encourages him to make is for Herbert's return--one week after his death. When the strange knocking begins at the door during the windy night, Mr. White panicks, believing that the previously dead but still mangled Herbert could have walked home from the cemetary and is now at the door. Because he fears what his wife will find if she opens the door, Mr. White makes his third wish--for the noise to stop.

Therefore, he uses his three wishes and to his sorrow, loses his son and disappoints his wife, who fervently believed that their son was at the door. She wanted him back, regardless of his condition.

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"The Monkey's Paw" is rare in that Jacobs essentially states the theme in the text. Sergeant-Major Morris tells the Whites that "fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow." This is Jacobs' direct theme: that one cannot control his/her fate, no matter how hard one tries to manipulate it.

One clear example is the White family's first wish. Mr. White wishes for 200 pounds: an attempt to change their fate. They think they're being reserved and rational by not asking for more, but the result of the wish shows that they have failed to change their destiny. They do indeed get their 200 pounds, but at a price they would never be willing to pay.

A second example is, of course, the climax of the story. The tension-filled moments before Mrs. White opens the door on nothingness are particularly powerful. Although the Whites have used their second wish to have their son back, Mr. White realizes just in time that they are attempting to control something that cannot be controlled. Thus, his last wish returns their lives to the path that destiny has chosen for them, not necessarily the one they would want themselves.

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