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The Monkey's Paw | Study Guide

W. W. Jacobs

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The Monkey's Paw | Context


The Weird Tale

In the late 1800s the gothic emerged as a literary genre. Gothic novels are commonly set in isolated, mysterious, and often strange settings; involve characters, including a fallen hero, with complex family dynamics; and feature melodrama, the supernatural, and architecture. Several other genres grew out of the gothic, at least in part: the mystery/detective genre, science fiction, horror, and the weird tale.

"The Monkey's Paw" is a fine example of a weird tale. Influential American writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) distinguishes the weird tale from the gothic story and the ghost story by both what it lacks (such as a ghost or a specific recognizable threat) and what it contains. Weird tales, Lovecraft argues, contain a powerful and often inexplicable feeling of dread and involve a suspension of the laws of nature. Science loses its power, at least temporarily, and there's often a dark kind of epiphany, when people reach new and disturbing realizations.

In "The Monkey's Paw," the mood of dread is established by the dark, stormy night and the appearance of a mummified monkey's paw that carries a warning. The outcome of the story is dictated not by the laws of nature or science, but by fate and magic as the character of Herbert dies and is brought back to life. When it is too late, the characters come to understand that fate is not to be tampered with and magic, like fate, is not subject to human control.

The "Exotic Orient"

In the 18th century Britain became increasingly involved in Asia, especially in trade. That led to Britain becoming politically involved with Asian countries as well. In India the East India Company (an English company) dominated India for roughly a century before, in 1858, Britain formally established rule of India by the British monarchy. This led to generations of occupation by British troops, which meant that British soldiers, like Sergeant-Major Morris in this story, left their well-known home country to cycle through years of duty in India.

During this period North America and Europe cast all of Asia as the "exotic orient." This broad stereotypical label referred to how inhabitants of the West came to see the East as a site of mystery, magic, and sensuality. In a time when science and technology were spreading through Europe, Westerners saw the East as an alternative: a place where the laws, rules, and expectations governing their daily lives did not apply. Jacobs indicates the Whites share this perspective through Mrs. White's comment that Morris's story sounds like something out of The Arabian Nights. The Arabian Nights, also known as The Thousand and One Nights, is a collection of Middle Eastern and Indian stories. The frame story features King Shahryar, who is famed for killing his unfaithful wives. One wife, Scheherazade, devises a plan to save her life. Each evening, she tells the king an unfinished story. To hear the ending, the king must spare her life for another day. The collection contains the well-known stories of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the sailor. In "The Monkey's Paw," the paw functions like a dark version of Aladdin's lamp, which also enables the holder to request three wishes.

In his stories set on the docks and those about men working at sea, Jacobs drew on stories he heard from members of the British merchant marine and other sailors who traveled to British colonies in the Pacific and Asia. He often emphasized elements of these travels, particularly those where members of the British working class paid the price for imperial expansion. Though this story does not explicitly discuss politics and Jacobs does not share any of Morris's actual stories about his travels, that's exactly what happens with the paw and its curse. The Whites, who don't play an active role in British imperial expansion and don't benefit from it, lose their son to a prize carried home by a member of the British military.

The Trope of Three

A trope is a structure or convention commonly used to organize stories. These can be highly specific, like fantasy novels featuring a dark or evil tyrant, or more general, like poets using imagery in their poems. The trope of three falls somewhere in between. Many stories are built around threes in some way: the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, the three little pigs, or the three musketeers. Heroes often face three challenges, and rhetoricians often make sure to address three points in their speeches or essays. For instance, the body of the classic five-paragraph essay contains three supporting paragraphs. There's a Latin phrase that says omne trium perfectum, which means "all sets of three are perfect or complete." This refers to the way having three things (people, events, or sections) can make a story feel complete.

There are many threes in "The Monkey's Paw," and this number structures the story, building expectation and tension. There are three Whites at the start of the story (Mr. and Mrs. White and their son Herbert). Morris can't tell the story of the paw until he's had three whiskeys. The fakir who blights the paw structures the curse so that three different men can wish on the paw and get three wishes each. There are three sections to the story, which means that when Mr. White makes his third wish, the paw is, or at least should be, exhausted. It should be just an ugly little souvenir from someone else's trip to India, rather than the incredibly powerful talisman it has become throughout the story. Once Mr. White makes his final wish, which seems to send their undead son back to his grave, the paw is powerless—but the paw's loss of power also means no one will believe the Whites' story because there is no evidence to support it. The story introduces the Whites as happy but physically or geographically isolated. The story ends when they are diminished and isolated by both grief and their experience.

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