The Monkey's Paw Analysis
- W. W. Jacobs’s short story “The Monkey’s Paw” presents ordinary Mr. White with a magical item, allowing his own desires to destroy him. The monkey’s paw grants his wishes, but never the way he envisioned.
- The monkey’s paw itself is a symbol of fate. It’s said that the Indian holy man who enchanted the monkey’s paw intended the artifact to teach people a lesson about fate: that those who interfere with fate will suffer the consequences.
- Jacobs was primarily known as a humorist. That sense of humor leaks through in “The Monkey’s Paw,” employing what is often called gallows humor.
W. W. Jacobs was well known during his lifetime for his light, humorous novels and stories about England’s dockyards but is now remembered only for “The Monkey’s Paw.” Although this story exhibits traces of Jacobs’s characteristic humor and insight into the prosaic lives of his subjects, it seems to have been rejected by the Strand, which regularly published his work. Whatever that magazine’s reservations about its unpleasant content, it is recognized today as one of the best supernatural stories ever written and is frequently anthologized.
“The Monkey’s Paw” is effective not only for what Jacobs does but for what he refrains from doing. A master of economical, unobtrusive prose, he sets a cozy scene—a chess game in front of a fire, a cold and windy night outside—in a few strokes. Only later does one realize how closely the rest of the story recapitulates the elements of this first brief scene, as the Whites make their moves in a fateful and fatal game while the forces of darkness swirl just beyond the comfortable circle of their lives.
Alongside Jacobs’s gently humorous touches are macabre examples of what since has come to be known as black humor. One such moment occurs when the sergeant-major panics at Mrs. White’s suggestion that she be granted extra hands—a wish that the reader later realizes might have had a grotesque fulfillment. Another such moment occurs immediately after Mr. White’s first wish, as his son, having set up the situation, tries to relieve the ensuing tension: “Well, I don’t see the money, and I bet I never shall.” These words turn out to be literally and bitterly accurate.
Jacobs introduces the paw into the story through a device familiar from folklore—the figure of the traveler who has returned from distant and exotic lands with a strange story to tell. He also uses the number three, a number traditionally associated with mystery in superstition and folklore. As part of his curse, the holy man has specified that three men shall have three wishes each, as if to intensify the number’s troubling power. In addition, there are three visitors to the Whites’ home: Morris, the man from the factory, and the final visitor.
“The Monkey’s Paw” is most effective for what Jacobs leaves unsaid and accomplishes offstage. Nothing is known of the first man to utilize the paw, except that his third wish was for death. Morris admits that he, too, made three wishes, and his grim manner implies that he regrets his choices, but the details are never explained. The reader learns what the Whites wish for but never witness the gruesome results. A diffident lawyer for the factory brings news of Herbert’s death, but Herbert’s condition is only implied by Mr. White’s reluctant admission that he could only recognize him by his clothing. Of the condition of the being—several days dead—who knocks at the Whites’ door, the reader can only guess. In each case, Jacobs leaves the reader to imagine something much worse than he can effectively describe.
Horror writer Stephen King based his 1983 novel Pet Sematary on “The Monkey’s Paw.” Readers may want to compare its more expansive and more graphically explicit treatment with Jacobs’s concise, understated approach.
The British Empire
When Jacobs wrote “The Monkey’s Paw,” a popular saying was “the sun never sets on the British empire.” By the early 1900s, England had conquered and colonized countries all over the world. The saying meant that somewhere in the world it was always...
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daylight, and there a British colony could be found. Sergeant-Major Morris returns from India, a British colony, in “The Monkey’s Paw.” In colonies like India, Hong Kong, Australia, and South Africa, British military men, explorers, archaeologists, and scientists were learning about ancient cultures and traditions little known in the West. Returning from distant colonies to England, they were firsthand sources of information about other peoples and countries for their countrymen curious about exotic far-off lands. The retired colonel just back from India was a staple character in British popular fiction for many years.
The Victorian Era
The last decades of the nineteenth century, and the first decade or so of the twentieth century, were, culturally, a very structured time, particularly in England. Jacobs grew up and wrote in an era when people lived by rigid, if unspoken, rules. Religious beliefs were strong, and the growing middle class honored hard work and social stability. Men were the wage-earners; women were the housekeepers and in charge of raising the children.
Over six million people lived in London by 1900. Because of the crowded conditions, several generations of the same family normally lived together in the same house. Housing was too expensive and scarce for most individuals or married couples to live alone. Grandparents, parents, and children often shared the same living quarters. There was no electricity, so all light came from candles or gas lamps. Young people looking for work sometimes turned to colonial service because it paid well and provided some relief from the conditions in England. Those who stayed home often worked in the many industrial factories.
Foreshadowing is a technique in which the writer hints at the events to come. Sometimes, authors depict events early in a story that are really microcosms of the plot that is soon to unfold; other times, writers create this effect by developing an atmosphere that projects the tone of what is about to happen. For instance, a rather cliched example would be a stormy night on the eve of a murder. Jacobs uses both types of foreshadowing techniques in “The Monkey's Paw.”
The Whites’ chess game at the opening of the story, when Mr. White puts his king into “sharp and unnecessary perils”—and soon sees “a fatal mistake after it was too late”—is a kind of mini-drama, one that tells us what is about to happen in the story.
The Whites (and readers) are given plenty of clues that the monkey’s paw is dangerous and powerful. When Herbert asks if Morris has had his three wishes, he only replies, “I have” and taps his glass against his teeth. We get the feeling that what happened to him is so terrible that he will not talk about it. Morris also tells the Whites that while he does not know what the first owner of the paw wanted in his first two wishes, the man’s third wish was for death. Mr. White, despite these warnings, wishes anyway and feels the monkey’s paw move in his hand when he does so.
The atmosphere in the Whites’ little house grows tense and ominous after Mr. White has wished on the paw. The wind rises outside, and “a silence unusual and depressing settled upon all three.” Finally, after his parents have gone to bed, Herbert sits alone in the darkness, watching faces in the fire. “The last face was so horrible and so simian [monkey-like] that he gazed at it in amazement.” The face becomes so vivid that Herbert reaches for a glass of water on the table to throw onto the fire; instead of the water glass, his hand finds the monkey’s paw.
These elements of the story, plus the appearance and strange behavior of the “mysterious man” who appears the next morning, prepare readers for the story’s first horrible event: Herbert’s death.
Imagery and Symbolism
Two other techniques that Jacobs uses with great skill and subtlety are imagery (the picture created by the story’s language) and symbolism (the meaning of an image beyond its literal description). Often, when an image is repeated, it then becomes symbolic. One such image in “The Monkey’s Paw” is fire.
At the beginning of the story, fire is a warming, comforting element: with a storm raging outside, the family is grouped around the hearth, with father and son playing chess while mother knits contentedly. After the sergeant-major has arrived and had supper with the Whites, the men again sit in front of the fire, smoking their pipes.
A little later, when Morris tosses the paw onto the flames, the function of the fire changes: its intended role is to consume and purify the evil and destructive force that Morris believes exists in the monkey’s paw. At the end of the evening, the same fire becomes ominous (or perhaps, delivers a warning) to Herbert, who sees a horrible, monkey-like face in the flames—one that so disturbs him that he tries to put it out.
In the final scenes of the story, fire fulfills a different purpose—to illuminate, both literally and figuratively. After Mr. White makes the second wish, the candle in the Whites’ room goes out, symbolizing that even more darkness will come into their lives. The father lights a match to show his way to the door, but the match goes out too; frantic, he drops the box of matches in his attempt to light another match. Mr. and Mrs. White are in the dark. Symbolically, this loss of light means that they have lost their direction, that they have lost hope.
The final, sad image in the story is the view the Whites have when they have flung open their front door, where we suppose the dead and mangled Herbert, called forth from the grave, was standing just a moment before. All they see is a quiet and deserted road, illuminated by a flickering streetlight (streetlights, when this story was written, were not powered by electricity and light bulbs, but rather by a gas flame). The Whites’ life, without their son, will now be desolate and empty.
Sergeant-Major Morris’s remark that the monkey’s paw is intended to show people that fate rules their lives and that it is unwise to interfere with it is true. Judging by the sergeant-major’s testimony, both he and the first owner of the paw have chosen badly. When Mrs. White jokingly suggests, as she sets the table, that her husband might wish for three extra pairs of hands for her, Morris forcefully points out to Mr. White that if he must wish, he should wish for something sensible. Despite the fact that he does so, fate exacts a terrible retribution.
The magnitude of this retribution is difficult to account for in conventional terms. After all, Mr. White wishes for a relatively insignificant sum of money and with little enthusiasm; he is far from being a greedy man. Traditional ghost stories tend to establish a comfortable balance between mortal transgression and supernatural retribution. “The Monkey’s Paw,” on the other hand, suggests that fate, whatever meaning one chooses to read into the word, operates beyond such familiar concepts as fairness and justice. The author refrains from comment, but his opening and closing scenes—a night “cold and wet” and a road “quiet and deserted”—suggest that humans may be at the mercy of an indifferent, if not actually malevolent, universe. It is these suggestions that render “The Monkey’s Paw” so chilling.
In 1933, The Monkey’s Paw was made into a fifty-eight-minute black and white film directed by Wesley Ruggles, produced by RKO, and starring C. Aubrey Smith, Ivan Simpson, Bramwell Fletcher, and Louise Carter.
A British version of The Monkey’s Paw, produced in 1948, was directed by Norman Lee and produced by Ernest G. Roy. The film is sixty-four minutes long, black and white, and the cast included Milton Rosmer, Megs Jenkins, Joan Seton, and Norman Shelley.
In 1972 the anthology movie Tales from the Crypt, containing five dramatized stories, adapted “The Monkey’s Paw” under the title “Wish You Were Here.” The film was directed by Freddie Francis and produced by Cinerama. The cast included Sir Ralph Richardson, Joan Collins, and Martin Boddey.
In 1979 the story was adapted as a nineteen-minute film produced by Martha Moran and now available on video from Phoenix/BFA Films and Video.
Stillife-Gryphon Films produced a twenty-seven-minute version of “The Monkey’s Paw” in 1983, available on video from Modern Curriculum Press.
Chesterton, G. K. “W. W. Jacobs,” in A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers, edited by Dorothy Collins, Sheed and Ward, 1953, pp. 28–35.
Adcock, A. St. John. “William Wymark Jacobs,” in his The Glory That Was Grub Street: Impressions of Contemporary Authors, Musson Book Company, 1928, pp. 147–57.Adcock discusses Jacobs’s use of humor, horror, and sentiment, and praises his stylistic control.
Donaldson, Norman. “W. W. Jacobs,” in Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1, edited by E. F. Bleiler, Scribner, 1985, pp. 383–87.Donaldson writes a brief description of Jacobs’s supernatural tales, including “The Monkey’s Paw,” which he calls Jacobs’s best.
Harding, James. “The Monkey’s Paw,” in The Reference Guide to Short Fiction, edited by Noelle Watson, St. James, 1994, p. 806.A short essay on story; book also includes entry on W. W. Jacobs and a bibliography.
Priestley, J. B. “Mr. W. W. Jacobs,” in his Figures in Modern Literature, Books for Libraries Press, 1970, pp. 103–23.Priestley argues that, in his humorous stories, Jacobs created a miniature world of his own where his comedic skills could be best displayed.
Pritchett, V. S. “W. W. Jacobs,” in his Books in General, Chatto & Windus, 1953, pp. 235–1.Pritchett provides an appreciative overview of Jacobs’s work as a writer, calling him “one of the supreme craftsmen of the short story.”