The Monkey's Paw | Study Guide

W. W. Jacobs

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The Monkey's Paw | Themes

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Fate

The Indian fakir (wandering Hindu holy man) who gave the monkey's paw its magic did so with an explicit purpose: to show that fate rules human life and that challenging this reality leads to pain. Although Sergeant-Major Morris says this early in the story, fate had already made an appearance in the story: in the second paragraph Jacobs describes Mr. White as having made a "fatal mistake" while playing chess with his son. When something is fatal in a game, it is only a metaphor. In the rest of the story fate plays a literally deadly role. Jacobs links these two words intentionally. And the Whites continue to make mistakes as they try to play on this larger board of fate: they disregard the advice from their expert guide Morris and buy the paw, which they then use.

Nature and Limits of Desire

When the story opens, the White family is relatively content. They are not rich, but they have a warm and comfortable home, and their son has a job. As Mr. White says, he has all he wants. However, once Morris shares his stories, the family's balance is upset, specifically by desire. White begins to wish that he too could have traveled to India. Once White buys the paw, he is at first at a loss as to what to wish for. At his son's suggestion he wishes for enough money to pay off the home's mortgage. This suggests a pattern that Jacobs continues throughout the story: those who accept their limits will be content and safe—as the Whites are early in the story. Once desire enters the story, it unbalances their lives, leading to greater and more tragic disorder.

Domestic Happiness

Throughout the story the relationship of inside and outside—and how that which comes from without (outside) can disrupt the home—is continually underscored. The story starts with the word without and then goes on to describe first the weather outside and then the condition inside the house. Outside it is "cold and wet," while inside it is warm and bright. Mr. White then keeps watch on the outside world, anticipating their visitor's arrival—but seeming a tad too eager for the intrusion from the outside world. When Morris does come, he brings stories from a distant land. He also brings the monkey's paw into the house, which changes it and its inhabitants forever.

In Part 2 Herbert White leaves the house, the first time in the story a family member does so. Within just a few lines Mrs. White observes a well-dressed stranger on the boundary to their property. She thinks he seems lost, but he is really gathering his courage to enter the house. When he does enter, he, like Morris, changes the inside of the house forever: he brings the horrific news of their son's death and the money the company is giving them in condolence. Part 3 starts with the Whites returning home from the cemetery where their son is buried, and then almost the whole of the section is dedicated to two things: calling their dead son in, and then keeping him out.

Questions for Themes

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