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 him to challenge fate. That violation brings the whole family to grief.
In ancient Greece, there were two types of drama: Comedy and Tragedy. In a Comedy, the action is usually lighthearted and often humorous. The ending is a happy one. In a Tragedy, the action begins with the hero on a high social and/or political level. He or she then descends to a position that is significantly lower in status than where the story began. The hero in a tragedy has a character weak-ness—the tragic flaw—that causes him or her to make a serious mistake, which causes his fall from the high position. Fate is a major concern in these plays. If the hero interferes with the inevitable, because of his tragic flaw, serious consequences occur. The ending is often intensely dramatic and the hero may die or be killed at the end. As our tragic little story opens, we are struck by the images of the happy family sitting in the living room, father and son playing chess and mother knitting by the fireplace. This is a typical English family from about the year 1900 and, as such, we know that their lives were highly structured. They lived by a set of strict but unwritten rules. Fathers were the wage earners, and the decision makers in the household. Mothers were homemakers and the family members most responsible for rearing the children. Sons were expected to follow in their father’s footsteps, or to go out and earn a living as soon as they were old enough. Daughters were expected to learn how to keep the house and then to marry and rear children.
But even in the most tightly organized situation, events occurred that disturbed the equilibrium. Equilibrium, in a story, is a state of balance among the characters. It is the disruption of equilibrium that creates interest in a story. Mr. and Mrs. White and their son, Herbert, are visited by the SergeantMajor and things begin to go awry. He comes into the house and entertains the family with stories of his visits to India (a colony in the British Empire at this time). During one trip he has obtained a monkey’s paw that has had a magic spell put on it by a fakir (a holy man)’ ‘to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.” As he describes the paw, “His tones were so grave that a hush fell upon the group.” These powers, he explains, should be taken very seriously and should never be trifled with. After the Whites take possession of the paw, the Sergeant-Major tries to convince them not to indulge in its magic, warning them of dire consquences. Despite the warning of the Sergeant-Major, the family is intent on testing the paw. Mr. White and Herbert are intrigued with the possibilities of gaining wealth by making a single wish. So, heeding the Seargeant-Major’s advice “to wish for something sensible,” Mr. White makes a wish for just 200 pounds. In one innocent act of greed, Mr. White has set into motion a series of events that are fated to end unhappily. After Herbert is killed in an accident at work, the company sends 200 pounds compensation to Mr. and Mrs. White. The wish seems to have come true!
If we accept these events at face value, several questions arise. Did Herbert die because they trifled with fate as the fakir warned? Or is Herbert’s death only a happenstance, as suggested by the SergeantMajor’s remark that “things happened so naturally that you might if you wished attribute it to coincidence.” No matter which possibility we choose, Mr. and Mrs. White continue to rely on the paw for assistance, which contributes to their continued descent into despair. Mr. White’s flaw, greed, has blinded him to his violation of fate. And after Herbert’s death, he succumbs to a deeper greed: to wish his son back from the dead. His failure to learn from his first interference with fate leads him deeper into the magical world. But his tragic flaw has caused him to fall into a great despair. He ignores the warnings of the Sergeant-Major at the beginning and he ignores his own instincts at the end when, at his wife’s urgings, he makes the second wish. His third wish is made, restoring a desolate calm, and this little tragedy has come to an end.
There are two techniques that illuminate the tragedy of the White family. These are imagery (the picture created by the language) and symbolism (the meaning of an image beyond its literal description). A powerful symbol occurs in the opening scene with father and son playing chess. Here the game is more than just a chess match. It is symbolic of a set of rules, a strict order. As long as the players follow the rules of the game, everything is in order. But if one or the other player violates the rules then chaos will follow. The White family’s lives have been governed by a strict set of rules and when we first see them, they are still living within them. But then these rules are violated, and chaos indeed ensues. Herbert moves from playing chess to playing childish games, taunting his father into making the first wish and then teasing him after the wish is made. Even Mrs. White joins in by chasing Herbert around the table. These childlike games have no rules and are ultimately more dangerous, because they indicate ‘ ‘a carelessness which betokened no great belief in [the paw’s] virtues.”
Another important image is the fire and flame. Fire is often seen as a source of comfort and warmth. It is also seen as a purifying or a destroying element. As a single flame of a candle or a match, it provides illumination. At first, fire is a part of a warming, comfortable image—mother sitting near the hearth, knitting. Later the two men sit comfortably before the fire and smoke their pipes before going to bed. But this image contains a double meaning. The fire and pipe smoking are both comforting, but they are also destroying something in the process. In both instances there is a reduction of substance, tobacco or fire wood, resulting in darkness, foreshadowing and symbolizing the dying happiness in the life of the family. During the evening, the fire takes on another meaning, when the Sergeant-Major, who is convinced that the paw is evil, tosses it into the fire. Here, fire is a destroying and/or purifying element. Another important flame image occurs in the final scenes of the story. After Mr. White makes the second wish, the candle in their room goes out before any results come from the wish. Then father lights a match to show his way to the door. But it, too, goes out and he cannot see down the hallway. He drops the box of matches in his frantic attempts to light another match. The symbolism of lost direction and lost hope is seen in the candle and the match going out. The Whites are in the dark, both literally and figuratively. Their passion for the dark power of the paw has clouded their ability to see. But, perhaps, the most poignant fire image in the whole tale is the last, the flickering street light illuminating “a quiet and deserted road.” In this final scene, the realization of the loss of their son is all the Whites have.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, W. W. Jacobs, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Carl Mowery, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.