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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The Monkey's Paw Characters

The main characters in “The Monkey’s Paw” are Sergeant-Major Morris, Mr. White, Mrs. White, and Herbert White.

  • Sergeant-Major Morris is an English soldier who brings the enchanted monkey’s paw back from India.
  • Mr. White is an ordinary, conservative man whose curiosity leads him to wish on the paw despite warnings from Sergeant-Major Morris.
  • Mrs. White is a loving, reserved woman who asks her husband to bring their son back to life after his death in an accident.
  • Herbert White is Mr. and Mrs. White’s son. He dies in a factory accident after his parents make their first wish.

Characters

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Last Updated on April 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1102

Sergeant-Major Morris

Sergeant-Major Morris is the catalyst for the story: he brings the monkey’s paw to the Whites’ home. He is “a tall, burly man, beady of eye and rubicund of visage,” whose eyes get brighter after his third glass of whiskey at the Whites’ hearth. Morris is both familiar and exotic. Morris and Mr. White began their lives in approximately the same way; Mr. White remembers his friend as '“a slip of a youth in the warehouse.” But in his twenty-one years of travel and soldiering, Morris has seen the world and has brought back tales of “wild scenes and doughty deeds; of wars and plagues and strange peoples.” Morris also carries with him the monkey’s paw, which changes all the Whites’ lives forever.

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The Stranger

The last character to appear in '“The Monkey’s Paw” has no name. He is the messenger of death—the company representative sent to tell Herbert’s parents about the death of their son in a terrible accident at work. On one level, Jacobs paints a realistic portrait of this man; Mrs. White notes that he is well dressed and that he seems very nervous, hesitating at their gate, and picking lint from his clothes before he delivers his horrible news. However, on another level, the writer keeps this character anonymous: the man never gives his name, and his face is not described except as “perverted.” In this way, the character works as a symbol of death or fate.

Herbert White

Herbert White lives with his elderly parents and gets along with them quite well. He works at a local company called Maw and Meggins. Like his father, he is good-natured and reliable.

Despite this steadiness of character, Herbert is also a little bit silly. He is the first to ask Morris whether the old soldier used three wishes himself, and Morris looks at him “in the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth.” He teases his parents about wishing on the monkey’s paw, goading his mother into chasing him around the table, and his father into making the first wish. He remains skeptical and flippant about the paw’s powers: “ ‘Well, I don't see the money,’ said his son as he picked [the paw] up and placed it on the table, ‘and I bet I never shall.’ ” A bit later in the story, Herbert jokes, “I expect you’ll find the cash tied up in a big bag in the middle of your bed.”

Like his father’s failings, Herbert White’s irreverence is perfectly understandable. This quality even contributes to why Herbert is so likable. However, when Herbert dies a horrible death, “caught in the machinery” at Maw and Meggins, it is suggested that his death is related to his refusal to take the powers of the monkey’s paw more seriously.

Mr. White

Mr. White is a conservative, satisfied man who enjoys his quiet domestic life. Jacobs shows this in the very first scene in the story, which opens with father and son playing chess in their cozy cottage on a rainy night, while Mrs. White, knitting by the fire, comments on their game. Clearly, the Whites live a contented, if somewhat contained, life. Later in the story, the grandest thing Mr. White can think of to wish for is to clear the mortgage on their little house.

White does have reckless tendencies, though. In the first paragraph of the story, in the chess game with his son, he puts his king “into such sharp and unnecessary perils that it even provoked comment” from his normally docile wife. This recklessness leads him to tempt fate with the monkey’s paw, endangering his family as a result.

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Mr. White is a kind of “everyman.” Happily retired, content with his life and his family, he is nevertheless intrigued by the tales of the exotic that his friend, Sergeant-Major Morris, brings home. His curiosity and his greed (a very minor greed, really) prove to be the undoing of his entire family—but these characteristics are what make him so human.

Although he is influenced by all the other characters, Mr. White is the principal force in the story—the one who makes things happen. Morris brings the monkey’s paw, but Mr. White rescues it from the fire and later purchases it from the sergeant-major. Herbert, Mr. White’s son, teases him into making the first wish; and it is his wife who forces him to make the second. He makes the third wish by himself, without even a witness to the wish-making. However, as the new owner of the paw, Mr. White is the person who makes all three wishes. He is the person who truly sets the story in motion, and it can be argued that he is the character who pays the most awful price for wishing on the monkey’s paw. For although Herbert loses his life, and Mrs. White loses her central reason for living, Mr. White in effect loses his whole family and must live with the knowledge that these losses are his own fault.

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Latest answer posted January 14, 2016, 9:31 pm (UTC)

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Mrs. White

Mrs. White is a calm, reserved woman. In the story’s first scene, Jacobs notes that Mr. White’s chess moves are so “radical” that they “even provoked comment from the white-haired old lady knitting placidly by the fire”—as if drastic events must take place in order for her to even speak.

Mrs. White enjoys a good relationship with both her husband and her son, Herbert. She jokes with them and humors them; when Mr. White insists that the monkey’s paw moved in his hand when he made the first wish, she replies, soothingly, “You thought it did.” She fits the stereotype of the good housewife, common in the time when Jacobs was writing: she keeps the house and sets the supper; her husband and son are the center of her world.

In fact, it is the strength of her maternal instinct that empowers her at the end of the story, after Herbert has died. Overcome by the loss of her beloved son, she forces Mr. White to make the second wish on the monkey’s paw: to bring Herbert back. Tragically, neither Mrs. nor Mr. White remembers to request that he come back whole from the grave, and in the moments before the door swings open, Mr. White wishes him gone again so that his wife need not see the mangled, partly decayed body that both characters believe will be there. Thus, Mrs. White loses her son not once, but twice.

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