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The Monkey's Paw
By W. W. Jacobs (1863-1943) 
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Characters
Point of View
Plot Summary
Conflict
Climax
Themes
Foreshadowing
The House as a Symbol
Glossary
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Author's Biography
Complete Free Text
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2011
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Type of Work and Publication Year

......."The Monkey's Paw" is a short story in the genre of Gothic horror. Harper's Monthly Magazine published it in September 1902.

Setting

.......The action takes place in Great Britain, circa 1900, in a house along a lonely road a considerable distance from the nearest population center. The main character, Mr. White, describes the locale in the sixth paragraph of the story: "Of all the beastly, slushy, out of the way places to live in, this is the worst. Pathway's a bog, and the road's a torrent. I don't know what people are thinking about. I suppose because only two houses in the road are let, they think it doesn't matter."

Characters

Mr. White: Elderly man apparently retired.
Mrs. White: Wife of Mr. White.
Herbert White: Son of Mr. White.
Sergeant-Major Morris: Dinner guest of the Whites. He brings with him a curious talisman, a mummified (preserved) monkey's paw.
Representative of Maw and Meggins: Man who delivers horrifying news.
Postman: Mail carrier who makes a delivery that attracts the attention of Mrs. White. 
 

Point of View

.......The narrator presents the story in omniscient third-person point of view. From this perspective, the narrator can reveal the thoughts of the characters, as in the following passages:

His [Sergeant-Major Morris's] manner was so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter had jarred somewhat.

In mental connection with the two hundred pounds, she [Mrs. White] noticed that the stranger was well dressed, and wore a silk hat of glossy newness. 

Plot Summary

.......In the parlor of Laburnum villa on a stormy evening, the elderly Mr. White attempts to distract his son Herbert's attention from the chessboard, saying, “Hark at the wind.”  But Herbert notices his father's vulnerable king nonetheless.
.......“I should hardly think that he's come to-night,” says Mr. White.
.......The son checkmates his father, who says with violence in his voice, “Of all the beastly, slushy, out of the way places to live in, this is the worst. Pathway's a bog, and the road's a torrent.”
.......“Never mind, dear,” says his wife, who is knitting by the fire; “perhaps you'll win the next one.”
.......In the cold night outside, they hear the gate bang and footsteps approaching. The elder White goes to the door and escorts a burly, red-faced man into the room and introduces him as Sergeant-Major Morris. Morris sits by the fire while White gets out the whiskey.
.......While on his third drink, Morris perks up and speaks of his twenty-one years of traveling in distant lands, notably India. He tells of “wild scenes and doughty deeds; of wars and plagues and strange peoples.” Mr. White says he would like to see India—“those old temples and fakirs and jugglers.”
.......“What was that that you started telling me the other day about a monkey's paw or something, Morris?"
......."Well, it's just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps."
.......Mr. White pours the sergeant-major another drink as the latter removes a dried, mummified paw from his pocket. Mrs. White draws back but her son takes it and examines it, then gives it to his father. He looks it over and sets it on a table, asking Morris what is unusual about it. The sergeant-major says a fakir had placed a spell on it to demonstrate that fate controls the lives of people and that anyone who tries to interfere with fate does so at his peril. 
.......“He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it."
.......The first man made his three wishes, Morris says. The last was a wish for death.
.......“That's how I got it,” the sergeant-major points out, speaking in a grave tone.
.......When Mr. White inquires why Morris keeps it, he replies, “Fancy, I suppose.” He would like to sell it because, he says, it has caused him trouble. But many people are reluctant to buy it because they doubt its power. Some want to try a wish first before paying him.
.......Suddenly, Morris takes the paw and throws it into the fire. White snatches it back out. Morris tells him he should toss it back in, but White puts it into his pocket and asks how to make a wish.
......."Hold it up in your right hand, and wish aloud," says the sergeant-major, "But I warn you of the consequences."
.......When Mrs. White gets up and begins setting the supper table, Mr. White takes out the monkey's paw. Morris, alarmed, quickly grasps his arm. His hosts all begin laughing. 
......."If you must wish, wish for something sensible," Morris says.
.......White puts it back in his pocket, sets the table chairs in place, and everyone eats. Then the Whites listen to more of Morris's stories of India. After he leaves, everyone jokes about the monkey's paw. 
.......“Why, we're going to be rich, and famous, and happy,” Herbert says. “Wish to be an emperor, father, to begin with; then you can't be henpecked."
.......Mrs. White chases her son playfully around the table while Mr. White takes out the talisman. He says he does not know what to wish for, because he has everything that he wants. Herbert suggests 200 to pay off the house, and so the old man says, “I wish for two hundred pounds.”
Immediately after stating the wish, Mr. White cries out and drops the talisman. His son and wife run to him. 
......."As I wished, it twisted in my hand like a snake," the old man says.
.......“Well, I don't seen the money,” says his son.
.......His wife says her husband must have imagined that the talisman moved.
.......After they sit down at the fireplace, the two men smoke their pipes. When the wind roars outside, a door bangs upstairs. Silence descends on the room. Then Mr. and Mrs. White decide to retire. When Herbert is alone in the parlor, he sees faces in the fire, the last resembling that of a monkey. Unnerved, he reaches to the table for a glass of water to throw on the fire but finds the talisman instead. After holding it momentarily, he lets go of it, wipes his hand on his coat, and goes to bed.
.......There is a bright winter sun the next morning. At the breakfast table, Herbert dismisses his uneasiness of the previous evening as baseless. Mrs. White says Morris's story about the monkey's paw was nonsense. Mr. White says Morris told him that the talisman's wishes are granted "so naturally that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence."
.......Herbert then goes out. When the postman delivers the mail, Mrs. White goes to with expectation in spite of what she said about placing no faith in the monkey's paw. But there is only a tailor's bill. 
.......Later, at the dinner table, Mr. White insists that the monkey's paw moved when he held it. Mrs. White says he imagined that it did. 
.......“I say it did,” says her husband.
.......When a well-dressed stranger arrives at the door, Mrs. White admits him and escorts him inside. He identifies himself as a representative of Maw and Meggins, Herbert's place of employment. Then, in a subdued voice, he announces terrible news: Herbert “was caught in the machinery.” On behalf of the firm, he expresses “sincere sympathy with you in your great loss.” 
.......The news devastates the old couple. Mr. White takes his wife's hand and says, “He was the only one left to us. It is hard.”
.......The man then says his employers “disclaim all responsibility” and “admit no liability.” However, he says, they wish to provide compensation—200. Mrs. White shrieks. Mr. White falls to the floor.
.......The days immediately after the burial are long and wearisome. One night, Mr. White awakens to find his wife at the window, crying. He calls her back to bed in a tender tone, then falls back to sleep. Moments later, he awakens again when his wife shouts, “THE PAW! THE MONKEY'S PAW!” She runs toward him saying she wants it. He tells her it is in the parlor on the mantle. Then she reminds him that there are still two wishes left. 
.......“Go down and get it quickly,” she says, “and wish our boy alive again.”
.......He tells her she is mad. But she insists that he use it again to restore their son.
.......“Bring him back,” she says.
.......He goes downstairs in the dark and finds the talisman. He is distraught. A cold sweat breaks out on his forehead. What if the as yet unspoken wish brings the young man back in his mutilated state? When he returns to the bedroom with the talisman, she tells him to wish. 
.......“It is foolish and wicked,” he says.
.......“WISH!”
.......He makes the wish, then lets the monkey's paw drop to the floor. The old woman opens a window blind and peers out. He sits in a chair. They wait. Finally, their candle goes out, and Mr. White returns to bed. A moment later, she joins him. In the silence—save for the ticking of the clock—they hear a stair creak. After mustering courage, Mr. White takes a box of matches, strikes one, and goes downstairs to get a candle. The match goes out on the stairs and he strikes another. There is a timid knock on the front door. Frightened, Mr. White drops the matches and runs back upstairs and into the bedroom. When his wife asks what happened, he says he saw a rat run past him on the stairs. The knock grows louder.
.......“It's Herbert!” Mrs. White says.
.......She runs toward the stairs but her husband grabs her arm and tells her not to answer the door. There is another knock, then another. Mrs. White breaks free and goes downstairs. 
.......“For God's sake, don't let it in,” he shouts. 
.......At the door, she cannot reach high enough to push back the bolt lock. She calls for her husband. But he is crawling around in search of the monkey's paw. If he can find it, he thinks, he can prevent “the thing” from getting in. The knocker is now pounding at the door. Mrs. White draws a chair up to it and throws back the bolt just as her husband finds the monkey's paw and makes a wish—the third and last. 
.......Mrs. White opens the door and wind rushes in. She cries out in misery, and her husband rushes to her side. There is no one there. He goes out past the gate to get a better look. 
.......“The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road,” the narrator says.
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Climax

.......The climax occurs when the representative of Maw and Meggins tells Mr. and Mrs. White that their son died in an accident at work. He also informs them that they will receive 200 as compensation for their son's death—the exact amount that Mr. White had wished for with the monkey's paw.

Conflict: Man vs Fate

.......Sergeant-Major Morris tells the Whites that the old fakir who cast a spell on the mummy's paw "wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow." But Mr. White wishes to challenge fate—perhaps to show that there is no such thing as fate in the first place or, if there is, that he can get his wish granted without incurring the wrath of fate. So he wishes for 200 pounds. Later, he is told he will get the money—as compensation for the tragic death of his son. In his 1849 poem "Resignation," Matthew Arnold wrote, "They . . . who await / No gifts from chance, have conquer'd fate." 

Themes

Horror

.......Jacobs craftily spins a tale in which horror overwhelms two of the characters—and perhaps not a few readers. He begins with a scene of a peaceful contentment: The elderly Mr. White and his son Herbert enjoy a game of chess in the parlor while Mrs. White sits knitting nearby. The glow of a fireplace warms the room. Outside, though, it is dark and cold and stormy, hinting of ominous events to come. A guest arrives, tells stories, dines with the Whites, and leaves behind a curious talisman, a monkey's paw, that supposedly grants three wishes to its possessor. Later, Mr. White holds up the talisman and makes his first wish. The next day the wish is granted—at the cost of Herbert's life. He is mangled in a machine while at work. Then Mrs. White wonders whether a second wish can bring him back to life, and the story moves swiftly to its terrifying conclusion. 

The Peril of Foolhardy Risks

.......Mr. White tends to act without due consideration of the consequences. This tendency first manifests itself in a chess game in which he subjects his king to “sharp and unnecessary perils.” His inclination to act hastily manifests itself again when he risks suffering a burn to retrieve the monkey's paw from the glowing parlor fire. When Morris urges him to throw it back, he keeps it. Clearly he wants to test the power of the talisman. And he does so even though Sergeant Morris had warned him of the possibility of dire consequences. 

Having Everything—and Wanting More

.......After taking possession of the monkey's paw, Mr. White tells his wife and son, "I don't know what to wish for, and that's a fact. It seems to me I've got all I want." Then he follows his son's advice to wish for 200. If there is a message here, it is this: Be satisfied if you are already leading a comfortable life. Wanting more leads to greed, and greed can lead to trouble. 

Man vs Fate

See Conflict.

Foreshadowing

.......Mr. White's reckless move in the chess game foreshadows his reckless desire to try out the monkey's paw. For more about White's tendency to leap before he looks, see Themes, The Peril of Foolhardy Risks.

The House as a Symbol

.......The Whites gather in the parlor of their comfortable home far from the hubbub of city life and shut in from the inclement weather. They are safe and secure, and  they are warm and happy near the glow of the fireplace. One might say they have their own little Garden of Eden. 
.......When Sergeant-Major Morris visits the family, he brings with him a strange talisman, a monkey's paw, that grants wishes. Even though Mr. White says he has all that he wants, he makes a wish. Then, he says, the talisman twists in his hand “like a snake.” Thus, a "serpent" has invaded the home just as a serpent invaded the Garden of Eden, and it has tempted the curious Mr. White figuratively to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But he brings ruin on his family just as Adam and Eve brought ruin on themselves. 
.......It is interesting to note that the name of the Whites' house is Laburnum villa. Laburnum is a a genus of shrubs and trees with poisonous bark, leaves, and seeds.

Glossary

Arabian NIghts: Collection of old tales from India, Persia, and Arabia. One of the stories centers on Aladdin and a magic lamp. Rubbing the lamp causes to appear a genie who grants wishes. Mrs. White is probably alluding to the Aladdin story when she mentions the Arabian Nights (also known as The One Thousand and One Nights). 
fakir (pronounced fuh KEER): Hindu or Muslim holy man who performs feats of magic and physical endurance. 
Laburnum: See The House as a Symbol
talisman: Object believed to have magical powers; charm.
 

Study Questions and Writing Topics

  • Sergeant-Major Morris urges Mr. White not to use the monkey's paw, saying it brings misfortune. If he believes the talisman has sinister powers, why did he bring it to the dinner in the first place?
  • Write an informative essay about the fakirs of India. In your essay, point out the difference between Hindu and Muslim fakirs. 
  • Are you superstitious? For example, do you believe that Friday the Thirteenth can bring bad luck? Do you keep lucky charms? Do you avoid walking under a ladder raised against a building? Explain your answer(s). 
  • Explain the underlined words in this quotation from the story: "Unconscious of his wife's shriek, the old man smiled faintly, put out his hands like a sightless man, and dropped, a senseless heap, to the floor."

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