The Monkey's Paw | Study Guide

W. W. Jacobs

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The Monkey's Paw | Quotes


Without, the night was cold and wet, but [inside] the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly.


This opening line to the story establishes several elements immediately. Specifically, it introduces the symbols darkness and light, as well as the theme of domestic happiness. These tensions run throughout the story. The clear distinction of them in this first sentence sets the stage for the conflict that is to come.


Never mind, dear ... perhaps you'll win the next one.

Mrs. White

Mrs. White says this to her husband after he loses—because of his own mistake—the game of chess he is playing with their son Herbert White. On the literal level she is soothing and reassuring her husband. On the emotional level the "knowing glance" she exchanges with her son indicates she knows her reassurance is in some ways fictional: she's playing her role as a supportive wife. On the symbolic and structural level this comment is a kind of ironic and tragic foreshadowing. The next game her husband will play will be with the monkey's paw, and he'll lose that one even more stupidly than he lost the chess game with his son.


Better where you are.

Sergeant-Major Morris

Morris is responding to Mr. White's statement that he would like to go India himself, "just to look around a bit." This exchange between Mr. White and his visitor sums up the two perspectives on the exotic, magical side of the world. By all appearances Mr. White has spent his entire life in England—and on the outskirts of a small village at that. He is eager to hear stories about India and other exotic locales, while Morris, who has actually been there, sees the quiet, innocent domesticity of English village life as better. The themes of domestic happiness and the nature and limits of desire are both evident here.


To show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.

Sergeant-Major Morris

Here Morris explicitly explains why the fakir, a wandering Hindu holy man, put a spell on the monkey's paw. Even though he tells Mr. White that using the paw will bring "sorrow," Mr. White does not listen. This suggests another possible meaning for this line: if fate rules people's lives, as the fakir says, then Mr. White may be fated to use the paw, lose his son, and risk his own life.


I don't know what the first two were, but the third was for death.

Sergeant-Major Morris

Here again, Morris explicitly warns Mr. White that using the paw is a terrible idea. This is a magical paw, one that grants wishes, but the first two wishes the previous owner made had such terrible results that death seemed preferable. That the Whites continue at this point, moving forward on their path to use the paw, says a lot about human nature in general. They trust their visitor enough to believe in the magic the paw carries, but they reject his very explicit and serious warning about how dangerous it is. This is human folly.


As I wished, it twisted in my hand like a snake.

Mr. White

This line communicates three crucial messages, all of which build on one another. First, the paw is not just dead and mummified, as it appears. It is active and in some sense alive. Second, the paw "twisted" in Mr. White's hand. In the same way the magic of the paw will twist his wish for £200, which seemed innocent and positive, into something horrific. The Whites will get the £200 they wished for—but at the price of their son's life. And third, there is a tradition in English and European literature of snakes being negative and untrustworthy. This goes back to the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, in which the serpent tempts Eve into original sin. The paw brings into the Whites' lives a similar temptation to explore the unknown.


There was an air of prosaic wholesomeness about the room ... and the dirty, shriveled little paw was pitched on the side-board with a carelessness.


The ancient great Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–22 BCE) argued that dramatic or fictional plots are built around peripeteia, which means reversal. Jacobs incorporates several such reversals in this story and communicates both a reversal and situational irony in this line. The night before, in the stormy dark, the paw had seemed alien and threatening. In the light of the morning the same room seems much more wholesome, and that "wholesomeness" has power over the paw in a way it did not the night before. The previous night Morris had introduced the paw and its framing story very carefully. Now the Whites treat the paw casually. The irony comes from the fact that the Whites don't believe in the paw's power, but at no point does Morris indicate faith is crucial to the paw's function—and the paw works on the Whites even though they don't believe in it.


The idea of our listening to such nonsense! How could wishes be granted in these days?

Mrs. White

Mrs. White here sums up the mood of the beginning of Part 2. This story was written in the early 20th century, after England had enjoyed a long stretch of scientific development and industrialization. It was also a century of exploration, when British explorers filled in many of the blank spaces on the map. By all rational thinking, the paw should have no power. Since the reverse turns out to be true, it is as if the story is underscoring the limits to human understanding of the world.


I'm afraid it'll turn you into a mean, avaricious man, and we shall have to disown you.

Herbert White

A number of the lines in this story are full of foreshadowing, and this is one of them. Mr. White is so far from being "greedy" he has to be nudged to wish for money at the start of the story. He is sad and emotionally broken by his son's death, and he is so far from being mean that he can't deny his wife that second wish, even when it seems wrongheaded. And it isn't Mr. White who must be disowned after the wish. It is Herbert who is later disowned and denied because of his postmortem transformation.


Badly hurt ... but he is not in any pain.

The representative

Throughout the story the author has key dramatic scenes happen offstage, so readers must imagine them. Here the factory representative uses a euphemism to do the same thing verbally: he is saying that Herbert White was killed but he's doing so without saying it. This stretches out the moment of communication, making it more dramatic, and in the end more painful for Mrs. White.


He has been dead ten days, and besides ... I could only recognize him by his clothing.

Mr. White

This is another instance where the author uses suggestion and implication to evoke an image. If his father who knew him so well could recognize Herbert only by his clothes, then he was not just killed in an industrial accident, he was grotesquely mangled. By not saying this directly, the author allows and requires readers to imagine just how terrible he looked.


It is foolish and wicked.

Mr. White

This is Mr. White's first response to his wife's command to wish. Husband and wife are almost battling over the limits of desire. Mrs. White wants her son back so powerfully that when her husband says it is "foolish and wicked," it has no effect on her. This story is set in a time when men were considered the heads of their households. Women had few legal rights and only limited political power. Despite this, Mr. White can't convince his wife not to make this wish.


I wish my son alive again.

Mr. White

When Mr. White made his first wish, it was for money, but he gave little thought to what this might cost him (and how the money might arrive). This parallels the "fatal mistake" and lack of foresight Mr. White displayed when playing chess. This line, as straightforward as it seems, betrays a similar lack of foresight. It was Mr. White who had identified his son's body. He was only able to do so from the clothes he was wearing. Despite this, he makes this wish as if it were a completely good thing for his son to live again.


For God's sake don't let it in.

Mr. White

The Whites are a very close family, or at least they were before their son's death. They lived together, ate together, and passed their leisure time together playing games, even though Herbert was old enough to live on his own. For Mr. White to call his son "it" shows just how far he imagines his son is transformed by what he's gone through. He is no longer their beloved boy, as Mrs. White sees him. Instead, he is "it," a thing to be feared and denied entry into their home. This is another place where the theme of domestic happiness plays out.


The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.


When the story started, the road was empty but dramatically noisy because of a storm. Now it is empty again but quiet. The threat and trauma that they have been through has passed. Early in the story the empty road disappointed them: they were looking forward to welcoming Sergeant-Major Morris. Now the empty road is a tremendous relief to Mr. White. The fact that it is empty means the unnatural creature that used to be his son will not come in to threaten and repulse them. It is a bitter triumph, and in many ways an empty one, like the street. But it is still a relief.

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