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The Monkey's Paw | Study Guide

W. W. Jacobs

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The Monkey's Paw | Symbols


The Monkey's Paw

The monkey's paw that gives the story its title is also its central symbol. It is dark, ugly, and withered, but impossible to resist. Monkeys have hands that are almost like humans', with fingers and opposable thumbs. However, this hand is explicitly labeled as a paw, emphasizing the animal side of monkeys and suggesting that those using it will be acting stupidly, like animals with paws. Once the Whites start to manipulate the paw, it manipulates them in turn, changing their lives forever.

Jacobs emphasizes the centrality of the paw by continually referring to it directly but also by incorporating references to hands throughout the story. In the opening scene Mr. White and his son both stretch their hands over the chess board. When the company representative comes to deliver the news of Herbert's death, he pauses with his hand on his gate. When Mrs. White realizes what news the man brought, she puts her hand on Mr. White's. When Mrs. White leaves Mr. White in the bed, he finds this out by stretching out a hand, and so on.

These references to hands stand in contrast to the monkey's paw, which symbolizes the intrusion of the unknown into peaceful domestic life as well as the allure of riches.


When the story opens, Mr. White and his son are playing chess. This is not unrelated to the decisions around the monkey's paw, as Jacobs explicitly says the father's view of chess involves taking "radical chances" that put his king into "sharp and unnecessary perils" so intense that his wife feels compelled to comment on this approach. He overreaches in his strategic choices so badly that Jacobs labels his play "a fatal mistake." This poor play foreshadows the Whites' bad choices involving the paw itself; thus chess represents the Whites' rash decision-making.

Darkness and Light

Jacobs's story is full of interplay between darkness and light, both literal and figurative, which symbolize the conflict of passions and intentions at the heart of the story. It starts at night, but there is a bright fire burning in Whites' parlor. As Morris has a few drinks, his eyes get brighter. Once he tells them about the monkey's paw, his manner is so serious that their "light laughter" seems jarringly inappropriate. After the family makes their first wish, the next morning dawns bright. But after their son's death Mr. White wakes in the night and finds himself alone in the dark. When they finally make the second wish, Mr. White must go "down in the darkness" to get the paw again. After he does, they wait in a darkness that is "oppressive." This descent of the Whites into darkness emphasizes the nature of the forces at work in the story.

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