By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W. W. Jacobs (1863-1943) is a miniature classic of the horror genre. In just ten pages, Jacobs provides suspense, a building sense of menace, and real drama, as well as bringing in such themes as family tragedy and the problems with imperialism. Mainly, though, it’s a classic tale of three wishes, which has been parodied and retold many times since (including in The Simpsons).
You can read ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ here before proceeding to our summary of the story below.
One cold winter’s night, an elderly man, Mr White, is at home with his wife and his son, the latter of whom is playing chess with him. A sergeant-major named Morris shows up, and tells the White family of his experiences serving in the British Army in India. He then shows them a talisman he has on him: a mummified monkey’s paw, which an Indian fakir or holy man placed a spell upon, allowing three separate men each to ask three wishes of the monkey’s paw.
Morris tells White that the first man who had three wishes of the paw asked for death as his third and final wish; that is how Morris came to own the paw. He doesn’t reveal what three wishes he himself asked from the paw, but he is clearly of the impression that only a fool would seek to ask three wishes of it.
He then advises White not to take the paw from him, and Morris even throws the monkey’s paw on the fire to try to prevent his friend from taking it. However, White retrieves the paw from the flames. After Morris has gone, and spurred on by his son, White wishes upon the paw, asking for two hundred pounds.
The next morning, Herbert, the son, goes off to work, and both Mr and Mrs White discuss the wish the husband made the night before. Later that day, a smartly dressed man turns up at the house, bearing bad news. Their son had died in an accident at work earlier that day, after being caught in the machinery.
The man, who represents the firm for which Herbert worked, reveals that the company would like to offer a sum to Mr and Mrs White by way of compensation. The sum is two hundred pounds. At this news, Mr White promptly faints.
The third part of the story opens a few weeks later. The Whites have buried their son, and are grieving. One night, Mrs White, who has clearly taken her son’s terrible death very badly, wakes her husband in the middle of the night and asks, in desperation, for him to fetch the monkey’s paw and to use it to make one last wish: for their son to be alive again.
The husband is reluctant to carry out such a request, but eventually agrees. He wishes on the monkey’s paw for their son to be restored to life, and they both stay up that night, waiting and hoping. Then there comes a knock at the door, and Mrs White, identifying the figure at the door as Herbert, pleads with her husband to let him in.
But as the thing at the door is frantically grappling with the door to gain entry, Mr White – terrified of the mangled reanimated ‘thing’ that he fears is trying to get inside the house – grabs the monkey’s paw and quickly makes his third and final wish. The noise at the door stops, and he opens the front door to find the road outside deserted. His wife utters a wail of despair. And that, in summary, is the end of the story.
That pretty much sums up the plot of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’; click here for our analysis of this classic story.
An absolute classic. Even the summary brings a chill!
The shock ending is one of the best ever – on a par with Incident at Own Creek by Ambrose Bierce and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.
Curiously, Jacobs’ other short stories are execrable but with The Monkey’s Paw – just for once – he touched immortality.
That story marks my transition from childhood stories to adult fiction. It left an indelible mark on my mind the first time I read it. I believe, it remains inimitable, in parody, tragedy or strips of comics. Thanks for broaching the subject.