The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs

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At a Glance

  • "The Monkey's Paw" is W. W. Jacobs' classic tale of the dangers of messing with fate. As Sergeant-Major Morris says, "Fate ruled people's lives," and those who interfered with fate suffered the consequences.
  • Jacobs links the themes of the exotic and the supernatural in the symbol of the monkey's paw. As a magical artifact from India, the monkey's paw takes on exotic, mystical qualities that draw on the old cliché of the East as an inherently supernatural place.
  • Death is another important theme in "The Monkey's Paw." First mentioned during Sergeant-Major Morris' tale of India, death goes on to provide the most horrifying images in the story as Mr. White's son rises from the dead, corpse bloodied and mangled.

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.


(Short Stories for Students)

Fate and Chance
In "The Monkey's Paw," Sergeant-Major Morris, an old family friend of the Whites, returns from India with tales of his exotic life and with a strange souvenir—a monkey's paw. This paw has had a spell put on it by a fakir (a holy man), he tells the Whites. Morris goes on to say that the fakir wanted to show that "fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it."

As the story unfolds, author Jacobs provides many hints that, indeed, the monkey's paw does possess strange powers, and that tempting fate by making the three wishes is a grave mistake. First, the son, Herbert, asks Morris if he has made his three wishes, since he is in possession of the monkey's paw. '"I have,' he said, quietly, and his blotchy face whitened.


(The entire section is 1,090 words.)