The Monkey's Paw Questions and Answers

W. W. Jacobs

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Monkey's Paw questions.

What is the Moral of This Story?

We do not need a monkey's paw to make wishes. We are free to make wishes at any time. And some of them come true. Unfortunately, it often turns out that the wishes that do come true result in disappointment—or worse. This fact of life seems to be the theme behind the theme of "The Monkey's Paw." We have all had the experience of getting something we wanted and then finding out that we made a mistake in wanting it. An example of a really serious mistake is marrying the wrong person. A less serious mistake is taking the wrong job. Benjamin Franklin wrote the following truth:

All human situations have their inconveniences. We feel those of the present but neither see nor feel those of the future; and hence we often make troublesome changes without amendment, and frequently for the worse.

Wishing is the same as wanting. We all want something we do not have much of the time. 

Samuel Johnson wrote a long poem titled "The Vanity of Human Wishes" in which he offers many examples of how people are disappointed by getting something they want. Macbeth desperately wanted to become king, and that turned out to be the worst mistake he ever made. Both Schopenhauer and Emerson speak of a "law of compensation" which dictates that a price must be paid for everything we want.

What is Herbert White's Place in the Story?

Herbert White is young and full of life. He is always joking. Both his parents love him, his mother especially. He is the light of his parents' lives. When he is killed at the factory, it seems like an especially devastating blow because it is such an immense loss for such a measly sum of money. The people at Maw and Meggins may feel it is adequate compensation, but the Whites would not have sold their son for any amount of money. It suggests the awesome power of the supernatural forces that control people's lives. The parents never recover from the loss. Their lives are empty. Their son's absence is like a tangible presence in the household. The parents have become so accustomed to the company of their lighthearted son, with his cheerful voice and inexhaustible fund of jokes, that they feel they can almost see him and almost hear him. The whole story revolves around Herbert. He is "the life of the party." It is he who suggests wishing for two hundred pounds to pay off the mortgage. It is his death that seems to have brought the money to their doorstep. It is Mrs. White's insistence on her husband wishing for Herbert to come back to life which seems to account for that horrible knocking at the door. It is Mr. White's last-minute wish for the knocker to go away which seems to send Herbert off into oblivion forever.

What Role Does Imagination Play?

In Shakespeare's play, Macbeth says:

Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.

This is an important truth. We will often find in our lives that things we dread turn out to be less terrible if and when we face them. This even includes final exams. The imagination can make the unknown seem worse than almost anything that is real.

The author of "The Monkey's Paw," W. W. Jacobs, displays brilliance in the way he evokes terror in the reader's mind without showing anything at all. The reader knows that Herbert was horribly mangled in the machinery at the textile plant. His father had to identify the body. When his wife is insisting on his wishing for Herbert to return to them:

The old man turned and regarded her, and his voice shook. "He has been dead ten days, and besides he—I would not tell you else, but—I could only recognize him by his clothing. If he was too terrible for you to see then, how now?"

So the reader must imagine a man who was so mangled that his father could only identify him by his clothing. And further, the reader must imagine the effects on the body of decaying for ten days in a grave. This is a case where the reader's horrible imaginings are worse than the sight of Herbert himself. Yet the author describes nothing but a closed and bolted door with someone knocking on the outside.

The scene is beautifully handled. Mr. White comes downstairs looking for a candle. 

At the foot of the stairs the match went out, and he paused to strike another; and at the same moment a knock, so quiet and stealthy as to be scarcely audible, sounded on the front door.

Why would there be such a stealthy knocking? It makes the incident seem worse than if there had been a booming noise. The fact that the knocking is "stealthy" and "scarcely audible," for whatever reason, makes the reader imagine that Herbert is there and that he knows he looks so horrible that he hardly dares seek admission to his old home. This stealthy knocking is intended to make the reader feel sure it must be Herbert outside. And as the knocking becomes more and more insistent, the reader, along with the parents, is certain it must be Herbert. Why? Because Herbert is dead but caught between two worlds, the world of the living and the world of the dead. He must get in somewhere. And his parents owe that to him. If the house was paid for by his accident, then the house is really his. Furthermore, if he has come in response to the wish made with the monkey's paw, all the supernatural powers of the cosmos are compelling him to obey that wish.