Discuss the symbols in "”The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs.    

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

W. W. Jacobs’ famous story “The Monkey’s Paw” falls into the genre of horror stories. The White family’s treacherous encounter with the ugly, magical talisman serves as a statement against placing faith in the paranormal world.  The evil begins with a “so-called” friend who manipulates Mr. White into purchasing the mummified paw. 

Once Mr. White pays for the paw, the lives of the family are irreparably damaged. The son’s immediate desire to make a wish ironically places him in fatal jeopardy as he dies supposedly accidentally at work and provides the money for the completion of the wish.

The story employs many symbols to add to the pervasive dread that issues forth in each section of the story. 

1st symbol

The chess game symbolizes the forthcoming ill-advised decision to buy the paw made by the father.  In the second sentence of the story, the reader learns that the father makes a move which puts “his king into such sharp and unnecessary perils…” This move causes him to lose the game. The chess game then foreshadows the moves that Mr. White will make which lead to the death of the son and his return from the grave.

2nd symbol

The White’s happy home stands in direct opposition to the paw’s evil hold on them. Before the paw, the family’s happiness and tranquility were obvious-- the hearth fire; the father and son playing a game; the mother busy with her sewing---until the Sergeant-Major arrives and brings the ill wind into the house.

The Sergeant and the talisman ruin the contented and warm surroundings by invading the home with evil and foreboding.

3rd symbol

The symbol of threes

The story itself is broken into three parts: the monkey’s paw; the death of the Herbert and the second wish; the final wish and the return of Herbert.

The man from the Herbert’s company approaches the gate three times before he gains the nerve to tell the parents of his death.

Mrs. White orders Mr. White three times to wish Herbert back to life.

4th symbol

The monkey’s paw represents greed and ill-gotten gain.  Very little good comes from money that has been obtained in a less than honest manner.  The Sergeant-Major gave some indication that the paw was not necessarily a good thing.  Herbert, ironically, pushes his father to get the paw and to make the first wish. It is his fatality that brings the completion of the first wish. The rest of the story and wishes center on his death.

 "Bring him back," cried the old woman, and dragged him toward the door. "Do you think I fear the child I have nursed?"

He [Mr. White] went down in the darkness, and felt his way to the parlour, and then to the mantelpiece. The talisman was in its place, and a horrible fear that the unspoken wish might bring his mutilated son before him ere he could escape from the room seized upon him, and he caught his breath as he found that he had lost the direction of the door. His brow cold with sweat, he felt his way round the table, and groped along the wall until he found himself in the small passage with the unwholesome thing in his hand.

The paw also raises the question that possibly Herbert would have died anyway and that the money was just a coincidental by-product.

The story presents a plausible connection to the paw.  When the knocking at the door ceases after the third wish, the reader along with Mrs. White wishes that Herbert’s return could have at least been witnessed before his return to the grave.