The English author W. W. Jacobs did most of his writing in a fifteen-year period around the turn of the twentieth century. Many of his stories were lighthearted tales about life on the English waterfront. But “The Monkey’s Paw,” first published in 1902 in a collection called The Lady of the Barge deals with the ghastly and macabre. According to G. K. Chesterton, it rates very highly “among our modern tales of terror in the fact that [it is] dignified and noble.” Chesterton says that Jacobs’ ‘ ‘horror is wild, but it is a sane horror.” This is in contrast to Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of “insane horror.” Even though “The Monkey’s Paw” is a short story and does not contain the royal characters or political intrigues of Greek drama, it does contain some elements of Greek tragedy. It begins in happiness and hope, and it closes in grief and despair. Mr. White’s desire for easy money (greed) leads . . . Read More
The British Empire
When Jacobs wrote “The Monkey’s Paw” a popular saying was “the sun never sets on the British empire.” By the early 1900s, England had conquered and colonized countries all over the world. The saying meant that somewhere in the world it was always daylight, and there a British colony could be found. Sergeant-Major Morris returns from India, a British colony, in ‘ The Monkey’s Paw.” In colonies like India, Hong Kong, Australia, and South Africa, British military men, explorers, archaeologists, and scientists were learning about ancient cultures and traditions little known in the West. Returning from distant colonies to England, they were first hand sources of information about other peoples and countries for their countrymen curious about exotic far-off lands. The retired colonel just back from India was a staple character in British popular fiction for many . . . Read More
Foreshadowing is a technique in which the writer hints at the events to come. Sometimes, authors depict events early in a story that are really microcosms of the plot that is soon to unfold; other times, writers create this effect by developing an atmosphere that projects the tone of what is about to happen. For instance, a rather cliched example would be a stormy night on the eve of a murder. Jacobs uses both types of foreshadowing techniques in “The Monkey’s Paw.” The Whites’ chess game at the opening of the story, when Mr. White puts his king into “sharp and unnecessary perils”—and soon sees “a fatal mistake after it was too late”—is a kind of minidrama, one that tells us what is about to happen in the story. The Whites (and readers) are given plenty of clues that the monkey’s paw is dangerous and powerful. When Herbert asks if Morris has had his three wishes, he only . . . Read More
Fate and Chance
In “The Monkey’s Paw,” Sergeant-Major Morris, an old family friend of the Whites, returns from India with tales of his exotic life and with a strange souvenir—a monkey’s paw. This paw has had a spell put on it by a fakir (a holy man), he tells the Whites. Morris goes on to say that the fakir wanted to show that “fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it.”
As the story unfolds, author Jacobs provides many hints that, indeed, the monkey’s paw does possess strange powers, and that tempting fate by making the three wishes is a grave mistake. First, the son, Herbert, asks Morris if he has made his three wishes, since he is in possession of the monkey’s paw. ‘”I have,’ he said, quietly, and his blotchy face . . . Read More
See Mr. White
See Sergeant-Major Morris
Sergeant-Major Morris is the catalyst for the story: he brings the monkey’s paw to the Whites’ home. He is “a tall, burly man, beady of eye and rubicund of visage,” whose eyes get brighter after his third glass of whiskey at the Whites’ hearth. Morris is both familiar and exotic. Morris and Mr. White began their lives in approximately the same way; Mr. White remembers his friend as “a slip of a youth in the warehouse.” But in his twenty-one years of travel and soldiering, Morris has seen the world and has brought back tales of “wild scenes and doughty deeds; of wars and plagues and strange peoples.” Morris also carries with him the monkey’s paw, which changes all the Whites’ lives . . . Read More
W. W. Jacobs’ short story opens with Mr. White and his son Herbert playing a game of chess. Mrs. White is knitting by the fire. Mr. White loses the game and becomes agitated and exasperated. Soon, there is a knock at the door and the Sergeant-Major enters. They share a few drinks and the Sergeant-Major tells them some tales about his trips to India, where he obtained a monkey’s paw. The paw is magical, allowing three men three wishes each. One man has died and the Sergeant-Major has used up his three wishes. He tosses the paw into the fire, but Mr. White snatches it out and keeps it for himself. The Sergeant-Major tells them that a fakir has put a spell on the paw ‘ ‘to show that fate ruled people’s lives.” Those who tamper with fate “did so to their sorrow.” But Herbert coaxes his father to wish for something modest, like 200 pounds. His father does so, while Herbert plays dramatic chords on the piano in accompaniment. They all go to . . . Read More
Katherine Mansfield, born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, lived a short life, but she established a literary reputation at a young age. Her first published book, In a German Pension, was published in 1911, when she was only twenty-two years old. She became friends with some of the great literary figures of her day, including D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, and married the writer and critic J. Middleton Murry.
Her stories are full of detail and small, albeit significant, incidents in her characters’ lives. In an often-quoted letter published in The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, she says of “Miss Brill”: “I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her, and to fit her on that day at that moment.” Katherine Fullbrook notes in her biography titled simply Katherine Mansfield that”while the surface of her stories often flash with sparkling detail, the underlying tones are sombre, threatening, and . . . Read More
Europe between the Wars
In the 1920s, Europe was rebuilding after World War I, the most destructive and deadly war in history. As the economy grew, spurred on by the advances in medicine and technology gained during the war, a newfound era of wealth and cultural growth permeated many Western European countries. France, especially, became a haven for expatriate artists and writers from England and the United States drawn to its affordable living conditions. The values of the “Jazz Age” spread to the continent, where the dismantling of strict Victorian protocol resulted in the rise of controversial art like Expressionism and Surrealism and explicit literature from writers like James Joyce.
“Miss Brill” is set during this tumultuous time period, when the sight of an older, single woman wearing an outdated fur stole represented a genteel world forever obliterated by the atrocities of trench warfare, the promise . . . Read More
Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” presents the interior monologue of a woman on a Sunday trip to the park whose pleasant illusions are shattered when reality infringes on her thoughts.
“Miss Brill” is set in the “JardinsPubliques,” the French term for “public garden,” or park. Miss Brill, through her name and the indication that she tutors students in English, is revealed to be a nonnative of France, and thus an outsider from the start. These factual references reinforce her emotional isolation, which she attempts to overcome by pretending that she is a cast member in a stage production. The pleasant weather, its crispness perfect for her fur collar, echoes Miss Brill’s good mood as she sits in the garden listening to the band and watching the people. When her illusion of understanding with the others in the park is shattered by the comments of the young couple, however, . . . Read More
Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” presents an afternoon in the life of a middle-aged spinster. On her usual Sunday visit to the park, she imagines the she and the people in the park are characters in a play. Contributing to her good mood is the fact that she is wearing her prized fur stole. Anticipating the conversation of two strangers who sit down next to her, Miss Brill’s vivacious mood is shattered by the couple’s ridicule for her and her fur. She returns to her tiny apartment and places the fur back in its box, imagining that she hears it crying.
Alienation and Loneliness
Though Miss Brill does not reveal it in her thoughts, her behavior indicates that she is a lonely woman. She thinks of no family members during her Sunday outing, instead focusing on her few students and the elderly man to whom she reads the newspaper several times a week. Even her name, Miss Brill, suggests an isolating formality; . . . Read More