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 replies,”I have,” and taps his glass against his teeth. We get the feeling that what happened to him is so terrible that he will not talk about it. Morris also tells the Whites that while he does not know what the first owner of paw wanted in his first two wishes, the man’s third wish was for death. Mr. White, despite these warnings, wishes anyway, and feels the monkey’s paw move in his hand when he does so.
The atmosphere in the White’s little house grows tense and ominous after Mr. White has wished on the paw. The wind rises outside, and “a silence unusual and depressing settled upon all three.” Finally, after his parents have gone to bed, Herbert sits alone in the darkness, watching faces in the fire. ‘ “The last face was so horrible and so simian [monkey-like] that he gazed at it in amazement.” The face becomes so vivid that Herbert reaches for a glass of water on the table to throw onto the fire; instead of the water glass, his hand finds the monkey’s paw. These elements of the story, plus the appearance and strange behavior of the “mysterious man” who appears the next morning, prepare readers for the story’s first horrible event: Herbert’s death.
Imagery and Symbolism
Two other techniques that Jacobs uses with great skill and subtlety are imagery (the picture created by the story’s language) and symbolism (the meaning of an image beyond its literal description). Often, when an image is repeated, it then becomes symbolic. One such image in “The Monkey’s Paw” is fire. At the beginning of the story, fire is a warming, comforting element: with a storm raging outside, the family is grouped around the hearth, with father and son playing chess while mother knits contentedly. After the sergeant-major has arrived and had supper with the Whites, the men again sit in front of the fire, smoking their pipes. A little later, when Morris tosses the paw onto the flames, the function of the fire changes: its intended role is to consume and purify the evil and destructive force that Morris believes exists in the monkey’s paw. At the end of the evening, the same fire becomes ominous (or perhaps, delivers a warning) to Herbert, who sees a horrible, monkey-like face in the flames—one that so disturbs him that he tries to put it out.
In the final scenes of the story, fire fulfills a different purpose—to illuminate, both literally and figuratively. After Mr. White makes the second wish, the candle in the White’s room goes out, symbolizing that even more darkness will come into their lives. The father lights a match to show his way to the door, but the match goes out too; frantic, he drops the box of matches in his attempt to light another match. Mr. and Mrs. White are in the dark. Symbolically, this loss of light means that they have lost their direction; that they have lost hope. The final, sad image in the story is the view the Whites have when they have flung open their front door, where we suppose the dead and mangled Herbert, called forth from the grave, was standing just a moment before. All they see is a quiet and deserted road, illuminated by a flickering streetlight (street lights, when this story was written, were not powered by electricity and light bulbs, but rather by a gas flame). The Whites’ life, without their son, will now be desolate and empty.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, W. W. Jacobs, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.