The Monkey’s Paw Themes
The main themes in “The Monkey’s Paw” are fate, the unknown, and grief and loss.
- Fate: Through the conceit of the monkey’s paw, the story explores the importance of fate in human life.
- The unknown: The story dramatizes the tension between the known and the unknown, showing the dangers of the latter.
- Grief and loss: The story depicts the psychological effects of grief and loss.
Last Updated on April 15, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 883
The central theme of “The Monkey’s Paw” concerns the role of fate in human life. When Sergeant-Major Morris introduces the monkey’s paw to the Whites, he explains the reason for its conception. It was devised by “an old fakir . . . [who] wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.” As such, the story foregrounds the moral significance of the monkey’s paw before it begins to tangibly shape the plot.
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The second and third sections of the story portray the grim consequences of using the paw. Mr. White’s wish for two hundred pounds, a modest but meaningful sum of money, results in the death of his son: the compensation for his death eerily equals the desired sum. Later, Mr. White’s wish for Herbert to return to life seems to result in the reanimation of his son’s mutilated corpse. If Morris’s account of the paw’s origin is taken at face value, Mr. White’s wishes fall outside the bounds of fate, and thus the misfortunes he receives are punishments for his attempts to interfere with fate. Considered in this way, the story’s moral is presented in a straightforward manner.
From another perspective, however, the paw’s significance is more ambiguous. For one thing, the paw answers each desired deviation from fate with what appears to be a deviation from fate. Although the paw instills regret in those who have made wishes using its powers, it is unclear that its methods prove the indomitability of fate. This ambiguity arises both from the unlikely events occasioned by the paw’s magic and by the difficulty in ascertaining the precise meaning—or intended course—of fate.
It is even possible to read the story as a series of coincidences in which the paw’s magic takes no effect and the trajectory of fate unfolds without the interference of wishers or fakirs. By this reading, Herbert’s death—and the company’s compensation—is a matter of coincidence, and the eerie presence Mr. White presumes to be Hertbert’s risen corpse is a person knocking on the wrong door, an effect of the wind, or something other naturalistic phenomenon. By this reading, fate proceeds of its own accord, regardless of the whims of humans or their claims to magic.
The story portrays the realm of the known as being preferable to the unknown, a theme in keeping with the story’s atmosphere of horror. Early on in the story, Sergeant-Major Morris tells of the exciting and varied events he witnessed during his twenty-one years in India. When Mr. White then expresses an interest in going to India, Morris soberly replies, “Better where you are.” This scene establishes the thematic tension between the known and the unknown, foreshadowing the story’s subsequent forays into the horrors of the unknown.
The monkey’s paw, itself an object infused with mystery, becomes the primary vehicle for these forays. Whether the Whites fully realize it or not, the paw offers a temptation to leave behind the reality they know in favor of an unknown one. This decision represents a risk: the unknown is, by definition, impossible to completely predict or account for, and to pursue it is to expose oneself to misfortune.
This dynamic becomes clear just before Mr. White’s first wish. Urged by Herbert to make an extravagant wish, he replies, “I don’t know what to wish for, and that’s a fact. . . . It seems to me I’ve got all I want.” Herbert suggests that his father wish for enough money to pay off the house. Thus, Mr. White is offered the choice between the state he knows, in which he is mostly content, and one he does not know, in which he might be utterly satisfied. Mr. White chooses the unknown, and the result is that his happiness is shattered by the death of his son. Thus, the story suggests that the unknown presents hazards as well as rewards and should not be thoughtlessly chosen over the known.
Grief and Loss
The third section of the story explores the psychology of bereavement. Having suffered the loss of Herbert, the Whites struggle to accept the tragic turn their lives have taken. At first, Mr. and Mrs. White maintain an expectation that the weight of their grief must somehow be alleviated, but both gradually give in to “resignation,” “apathy,” and “weariness.”
At a certain point, Mr. and Mrs. White diverge in their psychological reactions. Whereas Mr. White seems to have reached a grim acceptance, Mrs. White returns to expectation and hope when she thinks to use the monkey’s paw to reverse their tragedy. The story presents this as an understandable but irrational reaction—after all, the monkey’s paw is the very cause of Herbert’s death in the first place. Indeed, the ensuing events frame Mrs. White’s inability to accept the finality of Herbert’s death as an inability to confront reality. She does not perceive the danger of the figure knocking ominously at the front door; rather, she rushes to let the visitor inside. Despite this, Mrs. White is presented sympathetically, and the story ends with her cry of lament and disappointment.