The Monkey's Paw | Study Guide

W. W. Jacobs

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The Monkey's Paw | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Part 1

Mr. White and his son Herbert White are playing chess in their home. It's a cold wet evening, but it is bright and warm in the house. Mr. White just made a mistake and tries to distract his son from noticing it by drawing his attention to the wind outside the house. They begin to talk about whether a visitor they had been hoping would come to the house might do so that evening, and Mr. White complains that they live so far away and it is hard for people to reach them.

His wife recognizes that her husband is complaining in part because he just lost the chess game, and she reassures him. Mr. White hears someone enter their gate and gets up to welcome the visitor. The man, Sergeant-Major Morris, is tall and strongly built, with a reddish face. They shake hands, and the visitor takes a seat by the fire. Mr. White serves drinks, and after a few Morris starts telling stories about the things he saw on his travels, which have been going on for 21 years.

When Mr. White mentions he'd like to visit India some time, his visitor tells him he's better off where he is. White insists, and he asks Morris about a monkey's paw the man had mentioned before. Morris quickly shuts this down, trying to discourage White from asking further questions. When Mrs. White asks about it, Morris mentions they could call it magic. The Whites give him another drink, and he pulls out the paw. He explains that a holy fakir, or wandering Hindu wonder-worker, put a spell on it to demonstrate that fate rules human life and that people challenge that fate only at great risk. The spell gives three men three magic wishes each.

Herbert White asks the sergeant major why he didn't take these three wishes. The sergeant major says he did—and his face goes white as he says it. When pressed, he claims his wishes have come true. The man who had it first also had three wishes. Morris doesn't know what the first owner's first two wishes were, but the man's third wish was to die. He sounds so serious that everyone goes quiet for a while.

After a time Mr. White asks why Morris still keeps the paw, since it is worth nothing to him. Morris claims he doesn't really know. He thinks about selling it, but people who don't believe him aren't willing to pay much for it—and it has already caused him a lot of trouble. White asks if he'd make three more wishes if he could. Morris says he does not know and throws the paw into the fire. Mr. White pulls it out and asks Morris to give it to him. Morris refuses, saying he threw it away and that's where it belongs. If White keeps it, that's on him. White looks the paw over and asks how to use it. Morris explains—hold it in the right hand and make a wish out loud—but also warns him not to do so.

The Whites joke about making a wild wish—for "four pairs of hands" for Mrs. White—but Morris grabs Mr. White and warns him to make only "sensible" wishes. Mr. White puts the paw away, and the family enjoys more stories from Morris over dinner. After he leaves, Herbert returns the conversation to the paw, saying they won't get much out of it if their guest's stories were true. In response to a question from his wife, Mr. White admits he paid something for it, but that it wasn't much—and that Morris pressured him to throw the paw away.

Herbert makes another joking suggestion about what to wish for (to be an emperor), but Mr. White says he feels like he has everything he needs. His son suggests that his father would be happy if they just had the money to pay off the mortgage, which would be £200. Embarrassed by what he's doing, Mr. White holds up the paw and wishes for £200. They hear a crash from the piano when he makes this wish, and Mr. White cries out. When his family runs toward him, he explains the paw moved when he made the wish. His son observes that the money isn't there and predicts they never will see it. Mrs. White suggests her husband's imagination is what made him think the paw moved.

They all sit by the fire again. The men smoke, and everyone is quiet. Outside, the wind is stronger than ever. When they go to bed, Herbert jokingly predicts they'll find the money on their bed and "something horrible" on their wardrobe watching them. When his parents go up to bed, their son sits and stares into the fire. He seems to see faces there, and they get increasingly grotesque until he throws a glass of water on the fire and goes to bed.

Part 2

The next morning is bright and wholesome, so much so that the Whites dismiss Morris's stories as ridiculous and the monkey's paw as powerless and harmless. They don't see any way for the money they wished for to hurt them. Mr. White reminds them that Morris had said the paw's magic works so subtly it could be taken for "coincidence." Herbert jokingly warns them not to spend any of the money before he gets home and then leaves for work. Mrs. White laughs and mocks her husband over breakfast. Even so, after she answers the mailman knocking at the door, Mr. White claims the paw really did move. He and his wife are still disagreeing about this when Mrs. White sees someone moving outside the house. He seems to be looking for something or trying to decide something. Mrs. White notices the man is well-dressed.

The man seems unsure of himself: he stops near the gate three times, walking on each time. Finally, he gathers his resolve and walks to the Whites' house. Mrs. White tucks her apron into her chair and goes to the door as the stranger approaches. She welcomes him, but he still seems nervous and distracted. Eventually he hesitantly explains his purpose. He is a representative from Maw and Meggins. Mrs. White is immediately worried and asks if something happened to her son. Mr. White intervenes, reassuring her that the man didn't bring bad news.

The man apologizes, and Mrs. White immediately asks about her son again—if he's hurt. The man says he is "badly hurt," but no longer in pain. He means Herbert is dead, but at first Mrs. White thinks he's saying her son is okay. Eventually the truth dawns on her. She turns to Mr. White, and the visitor goes on, explaining their son was killed in an industrial accident. This devastates the Whites, especially since he was their only remaining child. The man explains the firm feels sorry for their loss. While Maw and Meggins doesn't accept any responsibility for Herbert's death, they do want to give some money to make up for their loss. Mr. White asks how much it is. The visitor says it's £200. Mrs. White shrieks at the information, while Mr. White smiles wanly and then faints.

Part 3

The Whites bury Herbert in the cemetery two miles from their house then go home to a silent house. Herbert had died so quickly that his parents expect something else to happen to make them feel better, but nothing does. Days pass, and they fall into a tired sadness, barely speaking to each another.

A week later Mr. Herbert wakes up in the night alone. He can hear crying. He calls to his wife to come to bed and says she'll be cold if she stays where she is. Mrs. White responds that it will be colder for Herbert. Eventually she stops crying. Mr. White dozes off, but when his wife cries out he wakes up again. She screams "THE PAW!" and "THE MONKEY'S PAW!" She starts looking for the paw. Mr. Herbert tells her where it is, and she laughs tensely as she explains: they have two wishes left, and she wants to wish Herbert back to life. Mr. White asks if the first wish wasn't enough, meaning their loss already cost them a lot. She counters that it was not—that they will have another wish—and tells him to get the paw. Mr. White lights a candle and tries to talk her out of it, suggesting it was just a coincidence that Herbert was killed and they got the money.

Mrs. White insists he get the paw and make a wish. Mr. White shifts tactics, arguing that Herbert's been dead for 10 days now. He also tells her for the first time that Herbert had been so badly mangled Mr. White only recognized him by his clothes.

Mrs. White insists, claiming she could never be afraid of the baby she nursed. Mr. White goes down into the parlor. He finds the paw on the mantel. He's suddenly afraid his mental wish would bring his dead, mangled son back immediately, before he can even get out of the room. This scares him so much he starts to sweat as he moves through the darkness with the paw in his hand. When he gets back to his wife, Mrs. White's face is white and looks "unnatural" to her husband. Mr. White is scared of his wife.

She orders him to wish for their son to return. He tries to argue it is a bad and stupid thing to do, but she orders him again. He wishes for his son to be "alive again." The paw drops on the floor, and Mr. White stares at it in fear, then collapses in a chair shaking. Mrs. White goes to the window and stares out.

Mr. White just sits there until he's cold. He looks at his wife from time to time. The candle has burned down, and it casts flickering shadows around the room until it goes out. Mr. White is relieved because the paw seems to have failed. He goes back to bed, and his wife joins him.

Neither speaks. They just listen to the clock ticking. They hear a step creak and a mouse move in the walls. After a while the darkness feels threatening to Mr. White, and eventually he lights a match and goes downstairs to get a candle. Once he's downstairs, the match goes out. Just as he starts to light another match, he hears faint knock. He drops the matches and holds his breath.

There's another knock. Mr. White turns and runs back to his bedroom, slamming the door after him. Behind him there's a third, louder knock that can be heard throughout the entire house. Mrs. White calls out "What's that?" and sits up. Mr. White says it is a rat. There's another knock loud enough to hear everywhere in the house.

Mrs. White is sure it is her son and runs to let him in. Mr. White beats her to the bedroom door and grabs her arm. He asks what she's going to do, and she says she is going to let him in—that she had forgotten it would take him a while to travel the two miles from the cemetery. She struggles to get to the door, and the two argue about whether to let him in. There are more knocks on the door. Eventually, Mrs. White gets free and runs downstairs to open the door. However, she can't get the bolt open, and she calls for Mr. White to help her.

Instead, Mr. White is upstairs, desperately scrambling for the paw. There's another blast of knocking. Mr. White hears his wife pull a chair over to the door so she can open the bolt. He hears the bolt creak as she opens it, and at the same moment Mr. White makes his third wish.

The knocking suddenly stops. Mr. White hears his wife open the door. A wind blows through the house, carrying a chill and Mrs. White's cry of sad disappointment. This makes Mr. White brave enough to run down to her and then out the door to the gate beyond. The road is quiet and empty.

Analysis

Setting the Stage: The Perfect Home

The story opens by setting the stage for the story. The entire story takes place within the Whites' home or within sight or an easy walk of it. The setting is so limited that it is almost like a play: a stage set could be made with just the sitting room, the Whites' bedroom, and a window for Mrs. White and the family to look out in anticipation of Sergeant-Major Morris's arrival.

This static set is, at the start of the story, almost perfect. Herbert White is an adult, but he and his parents get along so well they pass the evening playing chess together and talking. This makes the weirdness and trauma that will soon follow all the more intense.

Anticipation and Foreshadowing

For the Whites these early paragraphs are defined by one emotion: anticipation. Mr. White is so eager for their visitor to arrive and share stories of his travels that he worries Morris won't come because of the distance and the weather, and he is actively listening for the sound of his arrival. For the reader this anticipation passes smoothly into foreshadowing. Herbert and his father are playing chess, a game that requires foresight and pattern recognition to win. Mr. White shows he lacks these things by making a stupid mistake in the second paragraph, a mistake so bad the author labels it "fatal." Soon the Whites will make a mistake that is literally fatal, by making a wish.

Intrusion from Outside

When the story opens, the Whites seem to have a modest but happy life. It is warm and safe inside their home. Things change when there are intrusions from the outside. The first intrusion is Morris's visit: once he crosses the line of their gate and then enters their home, everything changes. He introduces the monkey's paw to the Whites. He informs them about its magic. He explicitly warns them not to use it. He sketches the general framework for the rest of the story: the paw gives three wishes, which will come true, but in such a dark fashion that the final wish will be for everything to end.

Despite this warning the Whites are already set on their fateful path. Mr. White's desire for magic is strong enough that he buys the paw from his guest. This is itself a sign of change and may drive the wish itself. For all that, Mr. White says he paid only "a trifle" for the paw, even though he does not give the actual amount. He may need the money he later wishes for in a way he did not before he wished. All later intrusions into the Whites' world will also be negative. The two largest are the arrival of the company representative (announcing Herbert's death) and the knocking at the door after the second wish (which may or may not be the mangled Herbert returned from the dead).

Though Jacobs does not dwell on this aspect too heavily, there is a definite cultural component here as well. The British Empire was a Caucasian empire, and this family is Mr. and Mrs. White. The paw Sergeant-Major Morris introduces is black and comes from India, where the native population is not Caucasian. This story suggests that any intrusion from that land is both dangerous and evil.

Daylight, Irony, and Death

When day dawns so clean and pure the next day, it seems to completely debunk the stories Morris had told the night before. The idea of wishes seems ridiculous, and the paw harmless. However, this is an instance of situational irony. Ordinarily a pristine, bright morning foretells well-being and serenity, but instead the representative from the factory shows up. He is unsure about just where to go and definitely does not want to deliver the tragic news of Herbert's death.

The representative is another example of an intrusion from the outside: Morris brought the paw and magic, and the representative brings news of their side effects. However, he is so delicate and concerned about the news he has to deliver that he cannot bring himself to say it directly.

Unspoken and Unseen

Throughout the story Jacobs manages the mood by carefully choosing which elements of the story to dramatize and which things remain unspoken and unseen. When Mr. White buys the paw from his visitor, he does not say how much he pays but rather only that it is a "trifle." When the factory representative visits the Whites' home, he communicates Herbert's fate (he's dead) without saying the words or directly indicating what the accident was. Here Jacobs shows how strong his mastery of storytelling is, because as part of their reaction, Mr. White says, "He was the only one left to us," indicating the Whites have suffered the deaths of other children. This immense backstory of pain never comes up again and is never explained, but it suggests why the Whites might be so vulnerable when they lose Herbert.

When the Whites make their second wish, Jacobs never shows if the knock on the door is coming from Herbert returned from the dead, or what he looks like. Instead, he has Mr. White think on how long he'd been in the grave and share with his wife that he only recognized their son from his clothes. Finally, the knocking on their front door ends after Mr. White's third wish, without Jacobs ever confirming what had caused the knocking (and if Herbert actually had returned from the dead).

This subtle emphasis on mood, and communicating disturbance through implication rather than direct direction, is common in the weird tale. American author Stephen King (b. 1947) also argued that the threat kept off stage is more upsetting than the threat revealed, because what the imagination evokes is always scarier.

The Monkey's Paw Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Sergeant-Major Morris comes to visit the Whites.

Rising Action

2 Morris tells stories of his travels in India.

3 Mr. White buys the magic monkey's paw from him.

4 Mr. White wishes for £200 to pay off the mortgage.

5 The next day, Herbert is killed in a factory accident.

6 A company representative gives the Whites £200.

Climax

7 Mr. White wishes for Herbert to return from the dead.

Falling Action

8 When they hear knocking, Mrs. White tries to open the door.

Resolution

9 Mr. White uses the third wish, and the knocking stops.

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