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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Why does "The Monkey's Paw" start with the father and son playing chess?

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I think you can attack this question from two angles: characterization and symbolism.

From a characterization perspective, the opening scene of any story is vital because it introduces the characters and teaches us, explicitly and implicitly, about their traits. In W.W. Jacob’s tale, “The Monkey’s Paw," the introductory scene begins with a chess game between Herbert and his father Mr. White. The father loses the game because he puts his king into “sharp and unnecessary perils.” Through this contest, the reader learns that Herbert is careful and methodical, while Mr. White is reckless and emotional. This information is vitally important as the plot grows darker with the revelation of the mysterious monkeys’ paw talisman.

From a symbolic perspective, the strategic game of chess often represents life. If you view the chess-game between Herbert and Mr. White from this lens, the opening competition foreshadows the carelessness with which Mr. White will treat his three wishes. Viewed symbolically, the chess game is almost allegorical: Mr. White treated his king with negligence and lost the game; when he treated the monkey’s paw carelessly, he lost his son. I hope this helps!

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The story begins with Mr. White playing his son, Herbert, in a game of chess. During the game, Mr. White makes a reckless move by putting his king in danger. Mr. White then attempts to distract his son from noticing his mistake but Herbert takes advantage and wins the game. Chess is a game of strategy that depends on a person's ability to make logical decisions and anticipate a player's next move. Mr. White's recklessness and lack of foresight while playing chess foreshadows his terrible decision to acquire and use the magic monkey's paw to make a wish. Mr. White's careless and risky chess moves set the stage for his use of the monkey's paw. Despite Sergeant-Major Morris's warning and ominous story regarding the monkey's paw, Mr. White rescues it from the fire and casually wishes for two hundred pounds. Tragically, Mr. White's wish has a disastrous effect that results in the death of his son.

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Why does "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs begin with the father and son playing chess, and does the father's strategy at the chess game indicate something about his personality?

In the opening of "The Monkey's Paw," the father plays chess with the belief that the game involves "radical changes," such as those that endanger the king. This action indicates that he takes risks without deliberation or planning ahead for future moves on the part of his opponent.

This same mental attitude is exemplified further in the narrative when the sergeant visits and Mr. White asks his friend,

"What was that you started telling me the other day about a monkey's paw or something, Morris?"
"Nothing," said the soldier, hastily. "Leastways nothing worth hearing."

But, his listener presses the sergeant to tell him. Despite the trepidation of the soldier during his narration, as well as his warnings that this monkey's paw has had a spell cast upon it, and his regret over having made his wishes, Mr. White recklessly asks for the paw. 

"I won't," said his friend doggedly. "I threw it on the fire. If you keep it, don't blame me for what happens."

Nonetheless, Mr. White takes the paw from the fire and asks how to make a wish. Again, the sergeant warns him of the consequences, but Mr. White takes the same "unnecessary peril" that he does as he plays chess. He pulls the talisman from his pocket and he and his wife and son all laugh as the sergeant entreats Mr. White to make a sensible wish if he feels he must make one.

After the soldier departs, the Whites talk among themselves. Herbert discredits all that the sergeant has told them, saying, " we shan't make much out of it." Jokingly, he suggests that his father wish to be an emperor. Mr. White looks at the paw and says that he does not know what to wish for because "It seems to me I've got all I want." Still, when his son suggests he ask for £ 200, the amount needed to "clear the house" (pay their mortgage), the father moves in "a radical change," and makes the wish without considering what could happen that would bring them this £ 200.

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Why does the story "The Monkey's Paw" start with the father and son playing chess?

As a pastime that involves strategy, risk and surprise, the game of chess mirrors life in those very aspects. Those who love the effervescence of risk often put themselves willingly in dangerous situations which can lead to radical options: life or death, sanity or insanity, safety or lack thereof. Since this scene takes place at the very beginning of the story, it is safe to conclude that it foreshadows another dangerous and risky situation that will equally involve life and death in a way that is similarly done in chess.

This opening scene is described as follows:

Father and son were at chess, the former, who possessed ideas about the game involving radical changes, putting his king into such sharp and unnecessary perils that it even provoked comment from the white-haired old lady knitting placidly by the fire.

This settles the notion that Mr. White revels in risk-taking behavior and loves to provoke fate, to a point. He enjoys this aspect of risk, and he does not seem to acknowledge that for every action there is a consequence.

When his turn comes to wish upon the monkey's paw, he will display the same behaviors that he does at chess. He is reckless and does not think about all the possible consequences that come from "playing with fire". As such, death will come as a result of his behavior. This is  a cautionary tale that tells us that we do not have any control over things, and that we should never tempt fate.

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