The Monkey's Paw Summary

"The Monkey's Paw" is a short story by W. W. Jacobs in which Sergeant-Major Morris brings home an enchanted monkey's paw from India, which then wreaks havoc on the White family.

  • Sergeant-Major Morris explains that the paw will grant any three wishes. However, both Morris and the owner before him regret using the paw.
  • Mr. White wishes for money to pay off the mortgage. The next day, his son dies, and the Whites are awarded the exact amount of their mortgage as compensation.
  • The distraught Whites then wish to revive their son, only to reverse the wish upon realizing the potential implications.

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Last Updated on June 21, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949

One rainy evening, Mr. White and his son, Herbert, play chess while Mrs. White knits by the fire. Mr. White makes an unwise move, and Herbert wins the game. Mr. White wonders about their expected guest’s arrival and complains about the poor conditions of the road in the remote area where they live.

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Hearing the sound of someone approaching, Mr. White rushes to the door and invites in their guest, Sergeant-Major Morris, a large man with a reddish complexion. Morris sits by the fire, drinks whiskey, and eventually begins to tell stories about his time in India, where, over the course of twenty-one years, he saw wars, plagues, and strange places and people.

Mr. White then brings up the monkey’s paw, a topic Morris began to describe in a recent conversation. As the Whites listen eagerly, Morris pulls the paw from his pocket and explains that it is a magic device. Its power is the result of a spell placed on it by a fakir whose intention was to prove that fate rules humans’ lives. The paw can grant three wishes to three separate people.

Morris himself asked for and was granted three wishes, and his face grows pale as he admits this. A previous man made three requests of the paw, the final request being for for death. When Morris throws the paw into the fire, Mr. White retrieves it and expresses a desire to own it. Morris discourages this but advises Mr. White to wish for something sensible if he must.

After dinner, Morris leaves, and the Whites discuss the paw. Herbert encourages his father to wish to be an emperor. Herbert then recommends a more practical wish: to pay off the house, which would require a sum of two hundred pounds. Herbert offers a dramatic piano accompaniment as Mr. White makes the wish, after which Mr. White shouts in surprise—the paw, he explains, twisted in his hand.

The Whites sit by the fire in a gloomy silence. When Mr. and Mrs. White finally retire for the night, Herbert jokes that a bag of money will be waiting on their bed. Alone, Herbert stares into the fire and sees ghastly, monkey-like faces forming in the flames.

The next morning, the grave atmosphere of the previous night is gone, and Mrs. White muses about the absurdity of the paw and wonders what ill event could possibly befall them on account of their wish. Mr. White reiterates that the paw causes calamities in a way that appears coincidental. Herbert, lighthearted, departs for work.

Later, Mr. White reiterates that the paw writhed in his hand when he voiced the wish. Again, Mrs. White responds with doubt.

As they talk, Mrs. White’s attention is suddenly drawn to a man outside on the road. Noticeably well-dressed, he paces back and forth in front of their gate before entering and approaching the house. Mrs. White lets him in, and he remains silent for a strangely long time before explaining that he has come from Maw and Meggins, Herbert’s place of work. Mrs. White frantically asks what has happened to Herbert, wondering if he has been hurt. The man affirms that he has been hurt but is not in pain—that is, Herbert has died. 

When the man adds that Herbert was caught in a piece of machinery, Mr. and Mrs. White are stunned, and Mr. White remarks that Herbert was their only remaining child. The man stiffly states that the company holds no liability but has offered the Whites a payment in compensation. When he states the sum—two hundred pounds—Mrs. White shrieks, and Mr. White faints and falls to the floor.

Some time later, Mr. and Mrs. White bury Herbert at a large new cemetery two miles from their house. They return home in silence, stunned by grief. Over the following days, the couple gradually give in to feelings of hopelessness and weariness.

One night, Mr. White wakes up in bed and realizes that Mrs. White is weeping by the window. He calls her back to bed, but she resists. After Mr. White falls back into a fitful sleep, he is awoken again by Mrs. White, who asks excitedly about the monkey’s paw. She reminds him that there are two wishes left and suggests that they wish for Herbert to be alive again. Mr. White strongly resists this idea, calling her mad and telling her to go back to bed. As Mrs. White grows more convinced by her plan, Mr. White raises the possibility that he might return in a terrible, mutilated form.

Mr. White finally concedes and retrieves the monkey’s paw. At her urging, he wishes that his son were alive again and, trembling, drops the paw. For a long time, nothing appears to happen, which gives Mr. White great relief, and the two return to bed.

With the candle having died, Mr. White goes downstairs to find another, at which point he hears a knock on the front door, causing him to spill a box of matches and hurry upstairs. More knocks resound, and Mrs. White is convinced it is Herbert. She tries to go to the front door, but Mr. White restrains her, horrified by what might be outside. She breaks free of his grasp, runs to the entrance, and begins to unlock the door. Unable to reach the bolt, she calls for her husband’s help.

As the knocks continue, Mr. White searches across the floor for the paw. He finds it and makes his final wish, which causes the knocking to suddenly stop. Downstairs, Mrs. finally opens the door and lets out a wail. The street outside is deserted.

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