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 whitened.
‘”And did you really have the three wishes granted?’ asked Mrs. White. ‘
“I did,’ said the sergeant-major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth.”
The sergeant major will say nothing else of his own misfortunes, but he does tell the Whites that although he does not know what the first owner of the paw asked for in his first two wishes, “the third was for death. That’s how I got the paw.”
Later that evening, Morris throws the paw on the fire, but Mr. White rescues it. Despite his friend’s grave warnings, Mr. White makes a rather modest wish for 200 pounds, so that he may pay off the mortgage on his family’s little house. And so, in spite of the original warning of the fakir, the story of the first owner of the monkey’s paw, who wished for death at the end, and the warnings of their friend Morris, the Whites attempt to interfere with fate, with terrible consequences.
Morris has also told them that “the things happened so naturally that you might if you so wished attribute [events] to coincidence.” This is, in fact, what happens in the story. A strange man appears at the Whites’ door the very next morning. He tells them that their son Herbert has been killed in an accident at work, and while the company admits no liability, they would like to settle on the Whites a sum of 200 pounds, as compensation for Herbert’s death.
Ten days after the funeral, Mrs. White, almost crazy with grief, forces her husband to make the second wish on the monkey’s paw: to bring Herbert back to them. Nothing happens for several hours, but then there is a knock at the door. “It* s my boy! It’s Herbert!” the old lady cries. “I forgot it was two miles to the cemetery!”
Mr. White imagines his mangled son, risen after ten days in a grave, whose face was barely recognizable after the accident, standing at their door. To spare his wife this horrible sight, he makes the third and final wish on the paw: that Herbert go away.
By tempting fate, and wishing for money, the Whites lose something even more precious: their son, and their happy life as a family.
It is human nature to want what one cannot have, and to undervalue what one does possess. Another common truth about the human condition is that people’s best qualities often turn out to be their worst: the characteristics that can save them on the one hand can be their undoing on the other. The downfall of the White family comes from tendencies within each of the Whites that are only natural.
For example, Mr. White, in his life a reasonable man, is reckless in small ways like in the chess game he plays with his son. He is skeptical about the power of the monkey’s paw; he feels foolish wishing on it and discounts the many warnings he hears and sees about the dangers of using it. He does, however, make his wishes. In the end, his “sensible1 ‘ wish for the mortgage money is his undoing. The fact that he has wished at all is enough to bring on the fakir’s curse.
Mrs. White also carries the seed of her destruction in her own character. She is the picture of the ideal housewife at the time the story was written: a good housekeeper, devoted to her husband and son, happy to let the men in the household make the important decisions. In her great love for Herbert, her son—for which she can hardly be faulted—she seizes upon the idea of wishing him back from the dead. Normally quiet and demure, she exhorts Mr. White to wish Herbert back with such force that he cannot deny her, even against his better instincts.
Herbert himself is a good-natured young man, who teases his parents about the power of the monkey’s paw. He, too, is skeptical. His joking is not mean; under the circumstances, it seems normal. However, we wonder whether he would have lost his life if he had been more respectful of these mysterious powers.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, W. W. Jacobs, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.