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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Critical Overview

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Popular with readers and critics alike (P. G. Wodehouse hailed him as a master writer), Jacobs was a prolific writer who published nineteen volumes between 1896 and 1926. He wrote short stories, novels, and plays, although critics agree that he was most accomplished at the short story form. Despite the fact that most of his stories were humorous tales of life on the English waterfront at the turn of the century, his most famous story is “The Monkey’s Paw,” which James Harding in The Reference Guide to Short Fiction called “a little masterpiece of horror by an unusually gifted writer.”

Jacobs is known for his deft, economical scene-setting and his neat, logical plots, two characteristics which are easily visible in “The Monkey’s Paw.” His stories show a gradation in humor. Many of them could be considered comedies, but Jacobs also began to experiment with what later became known as “black humor.” This vein of writing led him to deal in the macabre, crafting pieces like “The Interruption” (Sea Whisper), about a man who murders his wife for her money and is then blackmailed by his housekeeper. He plans to poison the housekeeper, but his plans go awry, and he dies instead. Another macabre story, “Jerry Bundler” (Light Freights), is a ghost story in which no ghost actually appears—similar to the last scene in “The Monkey’s Paw,” in which we believe that the mangled, ghost- or zombie-like Herbert is at the door—but never see him.

Jacobs published his first collection of short stories, Many Cargoes, in 1896. The book was well received by both readers and critics. G. K. Chesterton, who was regarded as one of England’s premier men of letters during the first half of the twentieth century, gave the book a glowing review, favoring Jacobs over Rudyard Kipling: “Mr. Jacobs is in a real sense a classic. . . . Compared with Mr. Kipling, Mr. Jacobs is like the Parthenon.”

Similar to O. Henry, Jacobs became famous more for the type of story that he wrote, rather than any particular work. The action in his stories usually revolves around neat, surprise-ending plots, which were very popular in his day. Sometimes his characters are motivated by money; often they are motivated by the desire to either be married or avoid marriage. Nearly all his plots contain trickery or deception.

Jacobs’s output slowed considerably beginning around 1911. However, in the last twenty years or so of his life, his popularity escalated, and many of his earlier works were reissued. In these later years, Jacobs did not produce much new work, but he did write some adaptations of his better-known stories for the stage.

After he died, Jacobs’s works fell into obscurity. In the late 1960s, however, interest in his writing was revived, and a number of his works have since been reissued.

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Essays and Criticism