What is the main idea of the story "The Monkey's Paw"?

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator
   Father and son were at chess, the former, [possessing] ideas about the game involving radical changes, putting his king into such sharp and unnecessary perils that it even provoked comment from the white-haired old lady knitting placidly by the fire.
One chilling main idea is expressed in the opening lines, quoted above, and is symbolized by Father putting his king into "peril," or danger, by "radical" and risky behavior.
Father and son and mother are placidly at home with nothing greater to complain about (and that only out of a temper tantrum from having recklessly lost at chess) than the muddy condition of the roads in a storm: "of all the beastly, slushy, out-of-the-way places ... the road's a torrent. ... [B]ecause only two houses in the road are let, [people] think it doesn't matter." Suddenly, as the result of a seemingly benevolent visit from a childhood friend of Father's, "[when] he went away he was a slip of a youth...," a malevolent force enters their lives rendering those lives like the beastly torrent visible in the symbolically important road outside their door.
An important thematic question to consider is: How much actual and moral responsibility does Sergeant-Major Morris bear for what transpires? He seems both fascinated by the monkey's paw and repelled by it; he starts to talk about it, stops, shrugs it off but can't resist calling it "a bit of what you might call magic." Does he attempt to discourage or does he attempt to lure though he knows the truth to be unspeakable even while he feels impelled to speak of it:
   "To look at," said the sergeant-major, fumbling in his pocket, "it's just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy."
   He took something out of his pocket and proffered it. ... "It had a spell put on it by an old fakir...."
Sergeant-Major Morris tells the story of the shriveled monkey's paw, "dried to a mummy," in tones "so grave that a hush fell upon the group." Then, after Morris left "just in time for him to catch the last train," and though warned against making wishes (warned in words but perhaps invited by deeds), Father takes up the monkey's foot and wishes for the "two hundred pounds" needed to "clear" the mortgage on their house at the end of the muddy, beastly road: "If you only cleared the house, you'd be quite happy, wouldn't you? ... [W]ish for two hundred pounds, then; that'll just do it."
Unwittingly, Father unleashes terrors upon his credulous, guileless, happy family, terrors that end with the death, and then the loss, of their beloved son, who seemingly appears at their door from the bowels of the grave, driving Father to use the third wish to send him back to oblivion.
Fate entered their house as a malevolent force. Fate drove the actions that took their happiness and their son. Was it fate or was it the compulsion not to stand alone in horror, such as the compulsion that was overpowering Sergeant-Major Morris? Author W. W. Jacobs raises chilling questions about the power of an impersonal fate; about the assumed benevolence of friends; about the nature of "holy" men ("It had a spell put on it by ... a very holy man"); about the danger of credulity and naivete.
  • Does fate's retribution walk in as a tempter on the feet of friends?
  • Does fate's retribution get a stranglehold through the "credulity" and naivete of fools?
  • Does fate's retribution play us against each other even as our own horror turns against us, compelling us to tell of the terrors we've seen?
The main idea of "The Monkey's Paw," on one level, is to be prepared to pay a price for your foolish, credulous behavior: Father was "smiling shamefacedly at his own credulity." The main idea on another level is to be wary of a malevolent, punishing fate that will turn its destructive face toward you, without warning and to your sorrow if tempted by your interference, on any metaphorically stormy, torrential, beastly night. For according to the fakir, fate rules and fate will not be interfered with without repaying interference with devastating sorrow. [There is also an underlying theme relating to the virtue of Indian culture since India is where the monkey's paw originated and where the "old fakir" put a spell on it to illustrate the power of fate in ruling everyone's lives, but the cultural aspects of the story are generally passed over because of the change in viewpoint as a result of post-colonial reevaluations of "otherness" and "diversity."]
"It had a spell put on it by an old fakir," said the sergeant-major, "a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow."
mercut1469 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the main ideas in W.W. Jacobs' short story "The Monkey's Paw" is that evil exists in the world and that even the best of people can fall victim to malevolent forces. Mr. and Mrs. White and their son Herbert are decent people. After all, their name is White. Despite the warnings of the Sergeant-Major, the family keeps the "talisman," which they suspect might just be a harmless curio. They can't imagine anything seriously bad happening to them. 

The paw, of course, is under a curse from an Eastern religious man and is indeed evil. The Sergeant-Major tells the family that one man who wished on the paw finally, as his third and last wish, wished for death. Herbert doesn't really believe in the magic. He makes jokes about it and the Sergeant-Major's stories. Judging by the way he plays chess, Herbert might be described as someone who thinks logically. He can't fathom some mysterious evil. The father, however, is somewhat more "radical" and credulous (considering his method of playing chess described in the first paragraph). He buys the paw for a small token of a sum and suspects it may actually grant wishes. 

After making the first very modest wish for two hundred pounds strange things begin happening. The piano strikes a chord and Mr. White claims the paw moved in his hand. Herbert sees strange images in the fire. The family has unleashed the sinister force of the paw and it ultimately destroys their lives as Herbert is killed to fulfill the wish for the money. When the mother wishes Herbert alive again the reader suspects he will be alive but in a mutilated condition because he has been maimed badly and had already been buried. His walking corpse is at the door in the last scene when Mr. White wishes it away. The paw's evil tempts the family, and their lives are forever changed because the "old fakir" wanted to illustrate through the cursed monkey's paw the main idea that fate rules lives and sorrow comes to those who try to improve or change what fate has set down as fact.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main idea of W. W. Jacobs' short story, "The Monkey's Paw," deals with how no one can control their own fate or destiny. The consequences of the story also point out that you don't always get what you wish for; and in the case of the White family, you don't always get what you wish for even if you are guaranteed that your wishes will come true. The story also raises the question of why a conservative, sensible (and probably Christian) couple would make a wish on such an object, especially after they have been forewarned by the previous owner.