On Tuesday, we summarised ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, W. W. Jacobs’ popular and widely anthologised short horror story about a mummified paw which has the power to grant three wishes to three men. Now, it’s time to offer some words of analysis and commentary on this intriguing and brilliantly constructed tale.
‘The Monkey’s Paw’ is a modern fairy tale, and indeed fairy tales and magical stories from the Arabian Nights (featuring djinn, or genies, who can grant wishes, as the story of Aladdin attests) are both mentioned by characters in the story. As in many classic fairy tales, the number three is invested with great narrative significance: there are three members of the White family, three men can use the monkey’s paw to request wishes, and each man gets three wishes. There are three knocks at the door after the Whites use the monkey’s paw to wish for their son to be alive again. The story itself is divided into three parts.
‘The Monkey’s Paw’ was first published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in September 1902 and proved instantly popular, being reprinted later that same year and adapted for the stage a year later. As Darryl Jones observes in his notes to the story in his brilliant selection of classic horror tales, Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson (Oxford World’s Classics), as well as inspiring story-lines in both The Monkees and The Simpsons, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ was also an important influence on Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary. The moral of the story: be careful what you wish for. The White family choose to use the monkey’s paw to wish for two hundred pounds – a not insubstantial sum in 1902 – thus opening themselves up to the charge of personal greed (especially as the money is wanted for nothing more life-threatening than clearing up the house). At the same time, the family do not seem to be especially rich, so it doesn’t strike us as an overly grasping and greedy act. But their punishment is to come into possession of the two hundred pounds in the most horrible way possible: as compensation for the loss of their son.
What makes ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ so unsettling, and such a masterclass in writing horror fiction, is that Jacobs doesn’t give us a clear reason why Mr White should deserve such a fate. If the monkey’s paw represents the empire striking back (see below), we are given no indication that White or his family is or has been particularly heavily involved in colonial India (and thus, one might argue, fair game).
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the surname of the Englishman who acquires the monkey’s paw is White: he is the white Englishman in possession of a magical Indian object which embodies the colonial other – the empire striking back. Perhaps being British is enough. But perhaps this is to look for motivation for something which requires none: it is a monkey’s paw, after all, an inanimate (albeit once animate) object, and it is pure coincidence that it finds its way into Mr White’s possession. If Mr White had been an army veteran like Morris who had served in India, or if he had made a fortune through colonial ventures, it would have reduced the story to a morality tale about the evils of empire. And in 1902, the British empire still wasn’t problematic for many Britons. What makes the story more unsettling is the strong suspicion that Mr White doesn’t deserve his fate, and that his son definitely doesn’t deserve to die so the terms of the first wish can be fulfilled.
Stories about the revenge of the empire were popular around the turn of the century, as novels like Richard Marsh’s The Beetle and Conan Doyle’s short stories attest. But what makes ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ such a pre-eminent example of the supernatural tale and such a popular story is that its themes are not reducible to empire. Its moral, be careful what you wish for, is, in the last analysis, a little cleverer and more complex than this: even the most innocent ambitions or wishes may have unintended consequences.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.