W. W. Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw: A Two-Minute Summary and Literary Analysis
“Be careful what you wish for…” The truism has been this tale’s defacto subtitle since it charged into popular culture, becoming one of the most famous short stories in the horror genre. Along with “The Body Snatchers,” “The Judge’s House,” “The Red Room,” “The Signal-Man,” “Green Tea,” and “Man-Size in Marble,” “The Monkey’s Paw” is a constant component of classic horror anthologies, largely due to the fact that it is a tale of existential proportions, with a philosophical brain and a broken heart. The theme of regretting a wish achieved through supernatural advantage is a staple of the genre: Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Bottle Imp,” Honoré de Balzac’s “The Wild Ass’s Skin,” Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Galoshes of Fortune,” Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” not to mention the Greek myth of King Midas, and the horrific Bible story of Jephthah and his daughter have all contributed to the mythic proportions of this literary idea. Jacob’s brushes his own particular marinade of tension, irony, pathos, hubris, and awe on the original archetype to generate one of the greatest contributions to the Western canon of horror stories. Its power lies in the Ancient Greek literary concepts of hubris – an arrogant defiance of Fate and Nature that pits the fragile human being against the punishing forces of the cosmos – and pathos – a humbling sympathy that whispers in the reader’s ear “this could happen to me if I’m not careful!” “The Monkey’s Paw” is a masterpiece of economic prose, atmosphere, and dramatic irony, and as such, it is rightly considered Jacobs’ greatest and most famous work.
The premise is so famous that it has since become archetypal, but let's briefly revisit the plot that is so familiar to many of us. It takes place at Laburnam Villa, a cozy-but-boring English cottage owned by the story-loving White family. Morris, a world weary Army veteran, spends a night with the Whites -- father, mother, and son -- telling them stories of his experiences overseas. Sitting before a snapping fire, the mood naturally turns to the metaphysical as he candidly shares his most crushing and fascinating tale: that of the monkey's paw. A magical talisman infused with an ironic ability to turn wishes into curses, it can grant three wishes to its owner -- though the outcome (as it's gloomy owner can attest) is doomed to come at a great cost. About to toss the charm into the fire, the veteran is stopped by Mr. White, who begs to take it off his hands. Against his better judgment, the old soldier agrees, and the Whites joke about their new possession: what harmless thing should they wish for? Herbert, their happy-go-lucky son, suggests a modest amount of cash -- not too big, nor too small -- and they go to bed with dreams of the imminent money. It does come, however, the news is brought by a morose company man who reports to the distraught Whites that their son has been killed in a brutal engineering accident at his work; the compensation is precisely what he had wished for. Deeply depressed, the surviving parents brood over their misfortune when Mrs. White -- seemingly manic with loss and love -- steals the paw and wishes her mangled son back to life. Taking into account the time needed to claw out of his grave and walk from the cemetery to the house, they watch the clock anxiously. Mr. White is deeply concerned about what will walk through the door, while Mrs. White is filled with giddy hope. Then something starts violently banging at their door. The husband tries to restrain his wife from admitting the rotting zombie, but she wrenches free and rushes to unlock the door. Desperate to set things right, Mr. White stumbles around, looking for the paw. Finding it, just as his wife manages to unlatch the door, he wishes his son dead again. Both parents suffer from slightly different heartbreaks when the door is swung open, and their rain-lashed doorstep is found to be abandoned...
The thrill of “The Monkey’s Paw” lies in the extreme dread, the withering sorrow, and the clashing emotions that build up throughout its expertly engineered prose. Economic and natural, Jacobs’ writing is at its best, and his grasp of emotional terror is as expert here as in the best moments of “The Well,” “Jerry Bundler,” and “The Toll-House.” The story is plagued by uncertainties, vagueness, and ambiguity: why did Morris agree to hand over the Paw, knowing full well its consequences (and what’s more, why did he explain the ritual of it, and why was he carrying it with him?); how did Morris receive the Paw and what were his wishes; how and in what way was Herbert killed; was it Mrs White or the Paw itself that compelled her to admit the awful thing on the doorstep; what would have happened had it got in; to what extent was it Herbert, reanimated with a mind and heart, or simply a thuggish zombie; what was, in fact, Mr White’s last wish (we know the outcome, but not the words); and lastly, has there been any supernatural influence here or is it a series of tragic coincidences?
Another important question should be raised here: why exactly does Mr White fear his son’s resurrected body? Indeed, the sight will be unquestionably grisly, but his emotions are not disgust or revulsion but deep (and apparently bodily) fear. Knowing full well the sinister results the Paw’s previous grants, White undoubtedly realizes that whatever is outside of that door can have nothing good to offer. What’s more, the motives of a resurrected corpse may not be entirely tender or reconciliatory. While zombie literature and folklore was barely even in an infancy, the idea of a corpse awoken to life driven from its awful grave was not new to fiction, and the results were rarely positive (most famously we remember the prematurely buried and symbolically dead Madeline Usher who threw her brother to the ground, killing him, and the Creature who – when rejected by his maker – destroyed the Frankenstein clan, life by life, before self-immolating).
An important understanding has been arrived at on White’s part. Whereas he began the story as a fellow who thought he’d like to put around India just for the hell of it, who rushed into chess moves and diabolical bargains heedlessly, full of confidence, invulnerability, and hubris, who saw Laburnam Villa as a mere base of operations, inconveniently removed from the wider world, he now understands the lesson that Morris had tried to import with his sage warning: better where you are. He now recognizes Laburnam Villa for what it is – a sanctuary, a bulwark against a mad and chaotic universe. Opening the door was his mistake – to the Paw and its promises of wealth and omnipotence. He will not make that mistake again, and he rushes to wish his son dead – a wish which need not come with an ironic curse; the curse it bears in execution is bitter enough in spite of all his terror – and for their home to become once more a refuge of family and togetherness for the few years they might still have with one another. He shuts out Herbert, and Laburnam Villa is transformed back into a cozy, if sadder bastion against the terrors of the wider universe.
As in the three stories mentioned above, Jacobs’ skill as a master of horror is best realized in his ability to hold back. How satisfying and delicious would it be to have a glimpse at Herbert’s mangled head – smashed all to fetid pulp and congealed into a black mass of rotten tissue – and how much more tantalizing and engrossing is it that we know something is demanding entry to the Villa, but that nothing remains when the door is finally unclasped? On a philosophical level, Jacobs weaves a fundamentally gloomy universe that stalks deviously around the perimeter of our small, comfortable lives. Like H. G. Wells, Lovecraft, M. R. James, and Arthur Machen, Jacobs implies that horror is admitted into our world by misguided ambition, hubris, and anthropocentric arrogance. When scientists try to expand the extraterrestrial dominion of mankind, when inquiring would-be sleuths probe the history of underworld cults, when curious academics try to impose the entitlement of modern times onto the antiquarian secrets of the past, or when cocksure metaphysicians meddle with the relationship between the physical and the invisible, the security of our humble bastion is compromised and hell is ushered in.
In “The Call of Cthulhu” Lovecraft urges academics to be careful of uncovering the as yet unnoticed nexus of hideous powers that dwarf and detest mankind: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” “The Monkey’s Paw” has a similar credo – it follows the philosophical maturation of Mr White, and his transformation from a cavalier citizen of the world (in the vein of the protagonists of The War of the Worlds, “The Call of Cthulhu,” “A Warning to the Curious,” or The Great God Pan), to a humbled, defensive self-preservationist.
No longer filled with the jingoistic spirit that consumed of the man who involuntarily saved the Paw from the bright fire, he comes to a better understanding of how terribly vulnerable and fragile human relationships are to the whims of Fate and Chance. Whereas he began the story as a fellow who thought he’d like to put around India just for the hell of it – who rushed into chess moves and diabolical bargains heedlessly, full of confidence, invulnerability, and hubris – who saw Laburnam Villa as a mere base of operations, inconveniently removed from the wider world – he now understands the lesson that Morris had tried to import with his sage warning: better where you are. He now recognizes Laburnam Villa for what it is – a sanctuary, a bulwark against a mad and chaotic universe. Opening the door was his mistake – to the Paw and its promises of wealth and omnipotence. He will not make that mistake again, and he rushes to wish his son dead – a wish which need not come with an ironic curse; the curse it bears in execution is bitter enough in spite of all his terror – and for their home to become once more a refuge of family and togetherness for the few years they might still have with one another. He shuts out Herbert, and Laburnam Villa is transformed back into a cozy, if sadder bastion against the terrors of the wider universe
You can read the full story HERE
And you can find our annotated and illustrated edition of Jacobs' best horror HERE