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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Why is Mr. White afraid in "The Monkey's Paw"?

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When Herbert was killed at the textile mill where he was employed, his father had to come down and identify the body. Herbert was horribly mangled by the machinery. Mr. White tells his wife that he could only identify his son by the remnants of his clothing. In Part III of the story when Mrs. White gets the inspiration to have her husband use the second wish available on the monkey's paw to bring their son back to life and back to their home, Mr. White is aghast. He tells her:

"He has been dead ten days, and besides he—I would not tell you else, but—I could only recognize him by his clothing. If he was too terrible for you to see then, how now?"

White makes the wish under duress, but he is secretly hoping that the two hundred pounds he received from his first wish was only the result of a coincidence. He knows that Herbert would look truly horrible after being mangled beyond recognition and then decaying in his grave for ten days. Mrs. White may want her boy back in any condition, but Mr. White has seen his actual condition and feels horrified at the thought of having such a monster move back into their little house to live with them again.

When there is no immediate result from his second wish, Mr. White begins to believe that the monkey's paw has no real power at all. The reader, too, is beginning to have the same opinion as Mr. White. Even Mrs. White has given up hope. But later in the night, Mr. White has to get out of bed and go downstairs to get another candle. It is at this point that something really creepy occurs.

At the foot of the stairs the match went out, and he paused to strike another; and at the same moment a knock, so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible, sounded on the front door.

Mr. White tries to ignore it, but his wife hears it too. The knocking which was "so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible" increases in intensity until its booming seems to fill the entire house.

A perfect fusillade of knocks reverberated through the house, and he heard the scraping of a chair as his wife put it down in the passage against the door.

He is not about to open that door, and his wife is having trouble because she cannot reach the top bolt. Who could it be at this time of night in this lonely setting but their son Herbert come back from the dead in response to the second wish? Mr. White made his first wish at his son's suggestion. He made his second wish at his wife's insistence. But he makes his third wish on his own initiative.

He heard the creaking of the bolt as it came slowly back, and at the same moment he found the monkey's paw, and frantically breathed his third and last wish.

The reader is probably just as relieved as Mr. White that he doesn't have to see the person—or thing—that was doing all that knocking. Earlier in the story Mr. White had repeated to Herbert what Sergeant-Major Morris had told him about the monkey's paw:

"Morris said the things happened so naturally," said his father, "that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence."

So the person doing all the knocking at the end might have been some lost traveler who was only trying to get directions. In that case, why was he knocking so persistently? There are only two houses occupied in this isolated new housing development and he must have already tried at the other house without success. This hypothetical traveler would know the Whites' house was occupied because he would have seen their light all over the neighborhood.

The talisman fell to the floor, and he regarded it fearfully. Then he sank trembling into a chair as the old woman, with burning eyes, walked to the window and raised the blind.

He sat until he was chilled with the cold, glancing occasionally at the figure of the old woman peering through the window. The candle-end, which had burned below the rim of the china candlestick, was throwing pulsating shadows on the ceiling and walls, until, with a flicker larger than the rest, it expired.

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