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 years.
The Victorian Era
The last decades of the 19th century, and the first decade or so of the 20th century was, culturally, a very structured time, particularly in England. Jacobs grew up and wrote in an era when people lived by rigid, if unspoken, rules. Religious beliefs were strong, the growing middle class honored hard work and social stability. Men were the wage earners; women were the housekeepers and in charge of raising the children.
Over six million people lived in London by 1900. Because of the crowded conditions, several generations of the same family normally lived together in the same house. Housing was too expensive and scarce for most individuals or married couples to live alone. Grandparents, parents, and children often shared the same living quarters. There was no electricity, so all light came from candles or gas lamps. Young people looking for work sometimes turned to colonial service because it paid well and provided some relief from the conditions in England. Those who stayed home often worked in the many industrial factories.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, W. W. Jacobs, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.