The Monkey's Paw Essays and Criticism
by W. W. Jacobs

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Fire Imagery

(Short Stories for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 3,697 words.)