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The Monkey's Paw

by W. W. Jacobs

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The English author W. W. Jacobs did most of his writing in a fifteen-year period around the turn of the twentieth century. Many of his stories were lighthearted tales about life on the English waterfront. But' "The Monkey's Paw," first published in 1902 in a collection called The Lady of the Barge deals with the ghastly and macabre. According to G. K. Chesterton, it rates very highly "among our modern tales of terror in the fact that [it is] dignified and noble." Chesterton says that Jacobs' "horror is wild, but it is a sane horror.'' This is in contrast to Edgar Allan Poe's tales of "insane horror."

Even though "The Monkey's Paw" is a short story and does not contain the royal characters or political intrigues of Greek drama, it does contain some elements of Greek tragedy. It begins in happiness and hope, and it closes in grief and despair. Mr. White's desire for easy money (greed) leads him to challenge fate. That violation brings the whole family to grief.

In ancient Greece, there were two types of drama: Comedy and Tragedy. In a Comedy, the action is usually lighthearted and often humorous. The ending is a happy one. In a Tragedy, the action begins with the hero on a high social and/or political level. He or she then descends to a position that is significantly lower in status than where the story began. The hero in a tragedy has a character weakness—the tragic flaw—that causes him or her to make a serious mistake, which causes his fall from the high position. Fate is a major concern in these plays. If the hero interferes with the inevitable, because of his tragic flaw, serious consequences occur. The ending is often intensely dramatic and the hero may die or be killed at the end.

As our tragic little story opens, we are struck by the images of the happy family sitting in the living room, father and son playing chess and mother knitting by the fireplace. This is a typical English family from about the year 1900 and, as such, we know that their lives were highly structured. They lived by a set of strict but unwritten rules. Fathers were the wage earners, and the decision makers in the household. Mothers were homemakers and the family members most responsible for rearing the children. Sons were expected to follow in their father's footsteps, or to go out and earn a living as soon as they were old enough. Daughters were expected to learn how to keep the house and then to marry and rear children.

But even in the most tightly organized situation, events occurred that disturbed the equilibrium. Equilibrium, in a story, is a state of balance among the characters. It is the disruption of equilibirum that creates interest in a story. Mr. and Mrs. White and their son, Herbert, are visited by the Sergeant-Major and things begin to go awry. He comes into the house and entertains the family with stories of his visits to India (a colony in the British Empire at this time). During one trip he has obtained a monkey's paw that has had a magic spell put on it by a fakir (a holy man) ''to show that fate ruled people's lives, and those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow." As he describes the paw, ''His tones were so grave that a hush fell upon the group." These powers, he explains, should be taken very seriously and should never be trifled with. After the Whites take possession of the paw, the Sergeant-Major tries to convince them not to indulge in its magic, warning them of dire consequences.

Despite the warning of the Sergeant-Major, the family is intent on testing the paw. Mr. White and Herbert are intrigued with the possibilities of gaining wealth by making a single wish. So, heeding the Seargeant-Major's advice "to wish for something sensible," Mr. White makes a wish for just 200 pounds. In one innocent act of greed, Mr. White has set into motion a series of events that are fated to end unhappily. After Herbert is killed in an accident at work, the company sends 200 pounds compensation to Mr. and Mrs. White. The wish seems to have come true!

If we accept these events at face value, several questions arise. Did Herbert die because they trifled with fate as the fakir warned? Or is Herbert's death only a happenstance, as suggested by the Sergeant-Major's remark that "things happened so naturally that you might if you wished attribute it to coincidence."

No matter which possibility we choose, Mr. and Mrs. White continue to rely on the paw for assistance, which contributes to their continued descent into despair. Mr. White's flaw, greed, has blinded him to his violation of fate. And after Herbert's death, he succumbs to a deeper greed: to wish his son back from the dead. His failure to learn from his first interference with fate leads him deeper into the magical world.

But his tragic flaw has caused him to fall into a great despair. He ignores the warnings of the Sergeant-Major at the beginning and he ignores his own instincts at the end when, at his wife's urgings, he makes the second wish. His third wish is made, restoring a desolate calm, and this little tragedy has come to an end.

There are two techniques that illuminate the tragedy of the White family. These are imagery (the picture created by the language) and symbolism (the meaning of an image beyond its literal description). A powerful symbol occurs in the opening scene with father and son playing chess. Here the game is more than just a chess match. It is symbolic of a set of rules, a strict order. As long as the players follow the rules of the game, everything is in order. But if one or the other player violates the rules then chaos will follow. The White family's lives have been governed by a strict set of rules and when we first see them, they are still living within them. But then these rules are violated, and chaos indeed ensues.

Herbert moves from playing chess to playing childish games, taunting his father into making the first wish and then teasing him after the wish is made. Even Mrs. White joins in by chasing Herbert around the table. These childlike games have no rules and are ultimately more dangerous, because they indicate "a carelessness which betokened no great belief in [the paw's] virtues.''

Another important image is the fire and flame. Fire is often seen as a source of comfort and warmth. It is also seen as a purifying or a destroying element. As a single flame of a candle or a match, it provides illumination. At first, fire is a part of a warming, comfortable image—mother sitting near the hearth, knitting. Later the two men sit comfortably before the fire and smoke their pipes before going to bed. But this image contains a double meaning. The fire and pipe smoking are both comforting, but they are also destroying something in the process. In both instances there is a reduction of substance, tobacco or fire wood, resulting in darkness, foreshadowing and symbolizing the dying happiness in the life of the family. During the evening, the fire takes on another meaning, when the Sergeant-Major, who is convinced that the paw is evil, tosses it into the fire. Here, fire is a destroying and/or purifying element.

Another important flame image occurs in the final scenes of the story. After Mr. White makes the second wish, the candle in their room goes out before any results came from the wish. Then father lights a match to show his way to the door. But it, too, goes out and he cannot see down the hallway. He drops the box of matches in his frantic attempts to light another match. The symbolism of lost direction and lost hope is seen in the candle and the match going out. The Whites are in the dark, both literally and figuratively. Their passion for the dark power of the paw has clouded their ability to see. But, perhaps, the most poignant fire image in the whole tale is the last, the flickering street light illuminating "a quiet and deserted road." In this final scene, the realization of the loss of their son is all the Whites have.

Source: Carl Mowery, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Carl Mowery has a doctorate in rhetoric and composition and has taught at Southern Illinois University and Murray State University.

The Narrative Structure of “The Monkey’s Paw”

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W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw" is one of the most reprinted tales of horror in the English language. Yet any study of the story's merits as such must take into account that its author was not a horror writer. Although several of his short stories feature macabre elements, Jacobs was best known in his day as a writer of humorous tales, often concerned with the sea and sailors.' "The Monkey's Paw" was first published in the general literary magazine Harper's Monthly in 1902, and collected that same year in The Lady of the Barge, a mixed bag of stories on various themes that differed little in content from Jacobs' previous volumes of short fiction.

"The Monkey's Paw" is a superior work of horror fiction because, first and foremost, it is a flawlessly crafted short story, A deceptively simple tale, it reveals on close inspection Jacobs' meticulous attention to narrative structure and careful handling of foreshadowing, symbolism, and other narrative elements that contribute to its eerie effect.

The story is divided into three parts, a number that Jacobs treats with significance: the monkey's paw grants three wishes, the White family is the third party to benefit from its magic power, and there are three members of the family. As a symbol, the number three can be interpreted to mean many things, including progression and imbalance. In Jacobs' tale, the universe tolerates neither. The monkey's paw has a spell put on it by a fakir who "wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow." Jacobs orchestrates the story's events to show how trying to change one's fate upsets the existing balance and invites a counter-reaction. The futility his characters experience trying to improve their lot with the monkey's paw is mirrored in the structure of the three parts of the story. Each is built around the same central event, a visit to the White household by an outsider. The repetition of this event and the consequences that follow reinforces the tale's lesson concerning the immutability of fate.

The first part of the story lays the foundation on which the other two parts build. Jacobs begins by contrasting the internal and external worlds of his tale: ''Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small corner of Laburnam Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly.'' The world that the Whites know is presented as cozy and bright, and the world beyond their door as inhospitable and dark. Jacobs is setting his scene here, but he is also building the framework for a tale of supernatural horror, which traditionally involves the eruption of dark and hostile forces into the comfortably ordered world of its characters. Indeed, it does not take long for him to evoke this possibility. Although the Whites are at ease with themselves and their surroundings, the "sudden and unlooked-for violence" with which Mr. White responds to losing a chess game suggests that the stability of the household is tenuous and fragile. The first test of its vulnerability is the visiting Sergeant-Major Morris, recently returned from twenty-one years of military duty in India. Morns is a taciturn man whose dourness clashes with the conviviality of the Whites and is clearly related to his experiences abroad. When Mr. White wistfully wishes that he might visit India himself, Morris remarks, "Better where you are,'' a comment that sounds particularly ominous in light of Mr. White's earlier outburst that ''of all the beastly, slushy, out-of-the-way places to live in, this [the family homestead] is the worst.'' The monkey's paw and the wishes it grants appear to be the root cause of Morris's sullenness. He informs the Whites that he has availed himself of its magic, but is cryptically evasive when asked what he wished for. He does note that its previous owner's third wish was for death, leaving the reader to infer the enormity of what he has suffered from his use of the talisman. This is the first of several instances in which Jacobs evokes horrors indirectly, foreshadowing the final horror which is so terrible that it is enough to suggest it without showing it.

In the first part of the story the monkey's paw is a symbol of the world beyond Laburnam Villa, a souvenir of a distant land but also an embodiment of the dark and foreboding forces that encroach outside the White's happy home. Morris begs the family to wish only for "something sensible," but knows that any wish made with it, no matter how sensible, will exact a devastating price. Mr. White believes "I've got all I want," but is easily goaded by his wife and son Herbert to wish for two hundred pounds. From the moment it is introduced into White's home, the monkey's paw begins disordering its harmony.

The story's second part follows the pattern of the first. When it appears that Mr. White's wish has not come true, everyone makes light of his credulousness. A spirit of "prosaic wholesomeness" prevails in White household until the arrival of the second visitor, this time the representative of Herbert's employer, who informs the mother and father that their son has been killed in a work accident. Jacobs carefully chooses the words that describe Herbert's accident: ''He was caught in the machinery" —literally the tools of his trade, but also the mechanism of fate which grinds down those who attempt to resist it.

"The Monkey's Paw" abounds with allusions to a inflexibly ordered universe that is merciless towards those who deviate from its prescribed paths. The first part of the story opens with Mr. White and Herbert playing chess, a game with fixed rules. Mr. White is characterized as someone who "possessed ideas about the game involving radical changes," a trait that puts his king into "sharp and unnecessary perils." By contrast, the man dispatched by Herbert's employers to deliver the news of his death remarks, ''I am only their servant and am merely obeying orders." Much of the story's horror derives from its depiction of fate as a mechanism indifferent to human whims and ambitions. In the story's first part, Herbert jokes that his father will find the money he has wished for sitting on his bed, "and something horrible squatting on top of the wardrobe as you pocket your ill-gotten gains." This image, which captures the spirit of much supernatural horror fiction written in Jacobs' time, suggests a world in which good is rewarded, evil is punished, and the moral concerns that govern human behavior matter. "The Monkey's Paw" shows the foolishness of such a world view. When the representative of Herbert's employers informs the family that they "disclaim all responsibility" for his death, he echoes Sergeant-Major Morris's warning "don't blame me for what happens" when Mr. White rescues the paw from the fireplace. There is no arbiter of good and evil working responsibly behind the scenes of Jacobs' story, only a clockwork universe in which the two-hundred pound indemnity paid the Whites amounts to an equal exchange for Herbert's life.

In the third section of the story the stasis one might expect in a universe so rigidly ordered becomes manifest. The Whites have buried their son and though they feel "a state of expectation as though something else was to happen," they are mired in ''the hopeless resignation of the old, sometimes miscalled, apathy." A brief boost of hope revives Mrs. White when she realizes that the monkey's paw can still grant two wishes. Once again Mr. White is pressed to make a wish, this time for the return of their son. Thus begins the third and final visit to the White household, a recapitulation of events from the first two parts which the reader knows by now can only lead to despair. When the knocking begins on the downstairs door some time later it appears that Herbert has returned and fate has been contravened. Belatedly, though, Mr. White realizes that in wishing his son back he has neglected to take into account the boy' s mutilation and time spent in the grave. A resurrected Herbert would be an abomination, as intolerable to look upon as impossible to exist in the fate-driven universe of the story. In a twist on the events of the first two parts, where outsiders bring misery into the White's home, a family member must now be kept out to prevent even greater misery from occurring. The irony of this turn of events raises the impending sense of horror to an excruciating level at the climax. With his third and final wish, Mr. White cancels out his second, wishing the knocker away. The magic of the monkey's paw is exhausted, and the Whites have gained nothing by it. Jacobs draws the reader's attention to this methodical working out of fate in his final sentence, where Mr. White looks out upon the "deserted road," as empty as it was at the story's beginning.

"The Monkey's Paw" is a model of story telling economy, whose 'individual parts reflect and contribute to a tightly integrated whole. Jacobs works out the story's simple premise—the inability to change one's fate—through its plot, but also uses it to organize his narrative. This expertly calculated matching of form to content explains the extraordinary power of Jacobs' tale, and possibly why its numerous imitators have never surpassed its effectiveness as a tale of horror.

Source: Stefan Dziemianowicz, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Stefan Dziemianowicz is the editor of many anthologies of horror and supernatural fiction.

Foreshadowing in “The Monkey’s Paw”

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In the early lines of W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw," an altogether chilling story, is embedded the germ of the entire story. Mr. White and his son Herbert were playing chess, the father,

(1) who possessed ideas about the game involving radical changes, (2) putting his king Into .. sharp and unnecessary perils... "Hark at the wind," said Mr. White, who, (5) having seen a fatal mistake after it was too late, (4) was amiably desirous of preventing his son from seeing it.

Contained in this passage are four elements that foreshadow the action of the story, although Jacobs is never heavy-handed in working out the tale as a projection of its opening paragraphs. The obvious parallel to the game of chess, is, of course, the game of life. While Mr. White's choosing a small sum (two hundred pounds) when he made his first wish on the monkey's paw might make him seem less than radical, we must remember that he snatched the paw from the fire when the old soldier tossed it there. Had White been one merely to accept life, he would have taken the soldier's advice and let the paw burn.

The second element, that of putting his king into "sharp and unnecessary peril," comes with the first wish. White had no way of knowing that he was endangering Herbert's life in requesting the £200, but the soldier's demeanor when he told of the magical powers of the paw should have warned a less radical man to let the paw burn. As it turned out, the £200 wished for came as an indemnity for Herbert, who was killed when he fell into some working machinery. While the Gothic tone of the story is not such that one would expect a pun on the "sharp'' peril, certainly the peril was unnecessary. White planned to use the £200 requested to pay off the mortgage, but there was no urgent need for it to be paid off immediately.

White's seeing a fatal mistake after it was too late was the third element. The fatal mistake here is not the death of his son, however, but something even more terrible—the resurrection of his son with his face still mangled from the machinery. When Mrs. White insisted that White make a second wish—to bring Herbert back—White feared that the wish might bring the son back mutilated. Nevertheless, his fear of his wife caused him to make the second wish. It was only much later, when they heard a noise at the door, that White sensed it was his mutilated son and frantically sought the paw to make a third wish.

This wish—that Herbert be dead again—was an acting out of the fourth element. But it is not the son he is preventing from seeing the fatal mistake this time. It is his wife, who is not aware that the second wish did not include the request that Herbert be restored whole. The third wish prevented the heartstruck mother from seeing the hideous creature outside the door.

Thus in the opening two paragraphs, Jacobs has given us a micro-story which contains all the elements of the macro-story, if one may use those terms. Still, his symbolic foreshadowing is not heavy-handed. The use of the words "amiably desirous" to describe White's efforts to prevent his son from seeing his mistake, for instance, would seem incongruous were they to describe his effort to prevent his wife from seeing their son. Indeed, despite the symbolic relationship of the chess game to the story proper, Jacobs handled it in such a sophisticated manner that the effect of the game on the reader is suggestive, hinting of the dangers implicit in Mr. White's radical ideas about the game—of life, while at the same time giving us with a few bold strokes a preliminary sketch of the central character in the story.

Source: Joseph H Harkey, "Foreshadowing in 'The Monkey's Paw'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol VI, no. 5, Fall, 1969, pp 653-54.

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