The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs

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What happens in The Monkey's Paw?

Sergeant-Major Morris arrives at the White residence on a dark and stormy night. He brings with him an enchanted monkey's paw, a magical item he picked up during his travels in India.

  • Sergeant-Major Morris explains that the paw was enchanted by an Indian holy man. It will grant three wishes to three people. The first man was so unlucky with his first two wishes that he used his third to wish for death.
  • Sergeant-Major Morris has already been granted his three wishes, which leave him so bitter that he throws the paw into the fire. Mr. White retrieves it at his own peril.
  • First, Mr. White wishes for money to pay off the mortgage. The next day, his son dies in a work-related accident, and Mr. and Mrs. White are awarded the exact amount of their mortgage in worker's compensation. Mr. White then wishes for his son to come back to life, only to reverse the wish when his son's corpse comes knocking on their door.

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One rainy evening, Mr. and Mrs. White and their son, Herbert, wait at their home, Laburnum Villa, for a visitor who knew Mr. White before going to India as a soldier twenty-one years earlier. When Sergeant-Major Morris arrives, the Whites serve him whiskey and seat him before the fire as he relates his experiences in the exotic British territory. Eventually Mr. White returned to the subject of the monkey’s paw that Morris mentioned earlier, but the old soldier tries to put him off, which only excites the family’s curiosity.

The sergeant-major produces the little mummified paw from his pocket, remarking that it had a spell cast on it by an Indian holy man who wanted to illustrate that those who interfere with fate do so to their sorrow. The spell would allow three men each to have three wishes from it. When Herbert asks him why he does not take three wishes himself, the sergeant-major responds soberly that he has. He adds that the first man had had his wishes as well, that the third was for death, and the paw thus had passed on to him. With this explanation, he throws it into the fire. As Mr. White retrieves the paw from the coals, the sergeant-major tells him that he does so at his own peril but reluctantly explains the appropriate manner for making the wishes. Dinner then follows.

After their guest leaves, the Whites discuss the paw. After some thought, Mr. White remarks that he has everything he wants and is unsure what to ask for. Herbert suggests that he wish for two hundred pounds to pay off the mortgage on the house, and Mr. White, with some embarrassment, does so. As he makes his wish, it seems to him that the paw twists in his hand, and he throws it down.

The next day, Mrs. White notices a mysterious stranger hesitating at their doorstep. When he is shown in, he announces to the Whites that Herbert has been badly hurt at the factory but is not in any pain. After the briefest of pauses, Mrs. White realizes that Herbert is dead and falls to comforting her husband. The stranger insists that the company that owns the factory denies all responsibility but is anxious to present a sum of money to Herbert’s parents in consideration of their son’s services—the sum of two hundred pounds.

One night after the funeral, Mrs. White suddenly realizes that there is a way to undo their misery. Begging her husband to fetch the monkey’s paw, she reminds him that there are two wishes left, and urges him to bring their son back to life. Mr. White falteringly explains that not only has Herbert been dead ten days but also that his body had been mangled beyond recognition. Nevertheless, he makes the wish.

The two wait in vain in their bedroom until the candle gutters out. Eventually Mrs. White gives up and creeps back into bed. Now Mr. White cannot sleep. He slips out of the bedroom, and as he reaches the foot of the stairs, a gentle knocking sounds at the door. It is repeated and repeated again more loudly. Mrs. White hears the knock and rushes downstairs to unlock the door, explaining that she has...

(The entire section is 1,094 words.)