What is the moral of "The Monkey's Paw"?

The moral of "The Monkey's Paw" is that it is foolish to tempt fate. What will be, will be, and there's absolutely nothing that we can do about it. Unfortunately, the Whites don't learn this lesson until it's too late, after they've been struck by tragedy.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

If one were to search for meaning in "The Monkey's Paw," it could be argued that the story is meant to teach readers that the grass is not always greener on the side, and there are always certain negatives attached to each decision we make in life. We have all experienced regret at certain decisions we've made and desired to attain something we do not have. In this way, we are similar to Mr. White, who desired to pay off his house. Mr. White mentioned that he already had everything he wanted in life but was influenced by his son to wish for two hundred pounds. By wishing for two hundred pounds, Mr. White attempted to make his life a little better and unknowingly put his entire family in danger.

Mr. White does attempt to slightly alter the trajectory of his otherwise fulfilled life and pays dearly for it. Sergeant-Major Morris mentioned that an old fakir had placed a spell on the paw to prove that fate ruled people's lives and that those who tried to change it would be sorry. By acquiring two hundred pounds without working for it, Mr. White tried to cheat fate and improve his life.

Although Mr. White's punishment was much too severe, readers can learn from his mistake by appreciating everything they have and not desiring more than they can handle. Jacobs is teaching readers that the grass is not always greener on the other side, and there are always certain negatives attached to each choice made in life. Unfortunately, the negatives attached to Mr. White's decision to wish on the monkey's paw resulted in tragedy.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The moral of W. W. Jacobs's celebrated short story "The Monkey's Paw" is that you should be careful what you wish for and that there are no easy shortcuts in life.

When Mr. White inquires about the monkey's paw, Sergeant-Major Morris touches on the moral of the story by saying, "He [the old fakir] wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who tried to change it would be sorry." Fate is something that cannot be altered, and the monkey's paw punishes those who attempt to change their destiny by wishing upon it. When Mr. White holds the talisman in his hand, he struggles to decide what to wish for, because he seems to have everything he ever wanted. It is Herbert who suggests that he wish for two hundred pounds, which is just enough money to pay off the house.

Although Mr. White is perfectly content in life, he foolishly wishes for two hundred pounds, which would seem to make his seemingly perfect life complete. Mr. White attempts to take an easy shortcut to paying off his home by wishing upon the paw. Unfortunately, his wish has tragic consequences and results in Herbert's death. Mr. White quickly discovers the meaning of the old adages "be careful what you wish for" and "there are no easy shortcuts in life." Mr. White's situation is similar to the tragic hero King Oedipus, who foolishly attempted to alter his destiny.

The fact that Mr. White's punishment does not fit his transgression contributes to the evil nature of the paw but also emphasizes the morals of the story. One can apply the morals of the story to their own life by recognizing the importance of appreciating their current situation and valuing hard work. Mr. White could have easily picked up on Morris's hint, discarded the paw, and continued to work to pay off his home. However, he attempted to take a shortcut in life and change his destiny, which turned out to be a disastrous mistake.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It's all too easy to think that we can somehow change our fate. But the nature of fate is such that it cannot be changed. It is what is is; good or bad, lucky or unlucky, fate is ultimately indifferent to anything we might do or say.

Sadly for the White family, this valuable lesson is lost on them. They think that by making three wishes on the monkey's paw, they'll somehow be able to control their fate. Suffice to say, it doesn't work out like that. The magic spell put on the paw by a fakir was intended to teach people the valuable lesson that if you tempt fate, the consequences are likely to be very grave indeed.

As Sergeant-Major Morris tells the Whites, the first man who made three wishes on the monkey's paw wished for death on his third wish. This would appear to confirm that tempting fate by making his first two wishes ended disastrously for him.

Unfortunately for the Whites, they don't take the hint. They think that the monkey's paw is a piece of harmless mumbo-jumbo, so they make a wish on it for some money. They may not be taking this seriously, but that doesn't make a difference; they're still tempting fate. That being the case, they're making a very big mistake indeed, one that will have tragic and horrific consequences.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The moral The Monkey's Paw is explicitly stated by Sergeant-Major Morris when he tells the Whites that "Fate rules people's lives and those who interfere with fate do so to their sorrow." In other words, people are subject to fate, but trying to take control of one's destiny will lead to worse outcomes than if one just let fate take the lead. We see this when Mr. White's wish for money results in the death of his son. This all raises questions about the role of free will in a person's destiny. Was Herbert's tragic death the inevitable consequence of fate, or were the White's responsible for it as a result of their attempt to meddle with destiny? Can the actions and wishes that we make change the course of our lives? The answer to these questions largely depends on how one interprets this story.

This also leads us to another moral of the story—be careful what you wish for. The first two wishes that Mr. White makes do indeed come true. However, the cost was much higher than anyone would willingly pay if they knew of it in advance. Perhaps the moral here is that we can indeed make wishes and see them accomplished, but there will inevitably be costs and sacrifices that we never can truly foresee.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

We do not need a monkey's paw to make wishes. We are free to make wishes at any time. And some of them come true. Unfortunately, it often turns out that the wishes that do come true result in disappointment—or worse. This fact of life seems to be the theme behind the theme of "The Monkey's Paw." We have all had the experience of getting something we wanted and then finding out that we made a mistake in wanting it. An example of a really serious mistake is marrying the wrong person. A less serious mistake is taking the wrong job. Benjamin Franklin wrote the following truth:

All human situations have their inconveniences. We feel those of the present but neither see nor feel those of the future; and hence we often make troublesome changes without amendment, and frequently for the worse.

Wishing is the same as wanting. We all want something we do not have much of the time.

Samuel Johnson wrote a long poem titled "The Vanity of Human Wishes" in which he offers many examples of how people are disappointed by getting something they want. Macbeth desperately wanted to become king, and that turned out to be the worst mistake he ever made. Both Schopenhauer and Emerson speak of a "law of compensation" which dictates that a price must be paid for everything we want.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial