Anyone alive today is in some way familiar with The Monkey’s Paw, even if you’ve never read it. It’s just in air. If nothing else, you are aware of the idea that wishes can come back to bite you in the ass.
The Whites are just hanging out at home when an old acquaintance of the father shows up for a visit. They sit around listening to the visitor’s adventures. He’s a retired soldier and he’s been everywhere, man. Including India. This is where he obtained the monkey’s paw.
The monkey’s paw had a curse put upon it by a holy man:
“He 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.”The traveler wasn’t the first person to have owned the monkey’s paw. The first owner used his last wish to ask for death. The man hints that he also made three wishes. It doesn’t seem like it went well.
Before he leaves, the man throws the monkey’s paw on the fire, but Mr White grabs it. He’s now the third owner of the item. The family treats it as a joke. They’re not greedy, and in fact Mr White comments that he has all he needs. His son Herbert suggests two hundred pounds. The wish is made and Mr White gasps. The paw moved!
In the cold light of the next day, the wish seems silly. Young Herbert goes off to work. The older couple go on with their day, until a stranger appears at their door with terrible news. Herbert was killed, “caught in the machinery.” And while his employer claims no liability, they do offer Herbert’s parents… two hundred pounds.
After burying their only child, the couple try to comfort each other. Mrs White remembers that there are still two wishes left and begs her husband to make another wish. A short time later, there’s a knock on the door.
The Monkey’s Paw is W.W. Jacobs best known short story. It’s in the first sentence of every online biography about him. Hey, did you know he wrote The Monkey’s Paw? There is something about it that captures the imagination. If you had three wishes but knew they’d come at a terrible price, would you still risk it?
As Mrs White says, the tale could just be the imaginings of an old soldier. Who believes in such things these days? The appearance of the two hundred pounds could be a coincidence. Herbert might have died whether they wished or not. At this point in the story, it could be either. It’s what happens after the second wish, and considering how things went the first time, would anyone want to open that door?
Jacobs often wrote humorous stories, and though there are humorous elements to this story, it’s perhaps its macabre tone that makes it stand out. The old soldier’s attitude changes when he talks of the monkey’s paw. He never says what his wishes were, but his contempt for it shows in his actions. The light hearted banter of the old couple turns to grief at discovering the loss of their son. The tension builds in the last scene as Mrs White rushes for the door. Will she see what’s on the other side?
Jacobs grew up poor. Perhaps the idea of suddenly having the ability to make yourself rich was on his mind well before he wrote The Monkey’s Paw. Wherever the idea came from, the lesson here is as always- be careful what you wish for!