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 does the story start with the father and son playing chess?

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I think you can attack this question from two angles: characterization and symbolism.

From a characterization perspective, the opening scene of any story is vital because it introduces the characters and teaches us, explicitly and implicitly, about their traits. In W.W. Jacob’s tale, “The Monkey’s Paw," the introductory scene begins with a chess game between Herbert and his father Mr. White. The father loses the game because he puts his king into “sharp and unnecessary perils.” Through this contest, the reader learns that Herbert is careful and methodical, while Mr. White is reckless and emotional. This information is vitally important as the plot grows darker with the revelation of the mysterious monkeys’ paw talisman.

From a symbolic perspective, the strategic game of chess often represents life. If you view the chess-game between Herbert and Mr. White from this lens, the opening competition foreshadows the carelessness with which Mr. White will treat his three wishes. Viewed symbolically, the chess game is almost allegorical: Mr. White treated his king with negligence and lost the game; when he treated the monkey’s paw carelessly, he lost his son. I hope this helps!

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The story begins with Mr. White playing his son, Herbert, in a game of chess. During the game, Mr. White makes a reckless move by putting his king in danger. Mr. White then attempts to distract his son from noticing his mistake but Herbert takes advantage and wins the game. Chess is a game of strategy that depends on a person's ability to make logical decisions and anticipate a player's next move. Mr. White's recklessness and lack of foresight while playing chess foreshadows his terrible decision to acquire and use the magic monkey's paw to make a wish. Mr. White's careless and risky chess moves set the stage for his use of the monkey's paw. Despite Sergeant-Major Morris's warning and ominous story regarding the monkey's paw, Mr. White rescues it from the fire and casually wishes for two hundred pounds. Tragically, Mr. White's wish has a disastrous effect that results in the death of his son.

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