“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs was first published in 1902 and seems to have shown up in one edition or another of just about every anthology of literature ever since. One reason for the story’s ubiquitous publishing history is that it is quite simply a masterpiece of literary economy. The story is surprisingly short considering its abundance of characters and incidents; the kind of tersely told story that fits in quite nicely among much shorter poems and much longer prose. Even readers who have never actually read the story composed by Jacobs are likely to be familiar with its macabre content that comes to a righteously ironic ending since “The Monkey’s Paw” is not only widely anthologized, but off-parodied. The Simpsons, for instance, created one of their most memorable Halloween episode segments from the source material offered by Jacobs.
What even those are familiar with text may not realize is that Jacobs did not intend for his horrific irony to induce merely simple melodramatic dread. The story of the accursedly detached simian anatomy could have been set in any time period of the past with just a few simple editing of the details. That the story is most definitely staged within the height of the British Empire during the Industrial Revolution is vital. “The Monkey’s Paw” is nothing less than a vicious critique of the British political, economic and military systems of the day. The paw itself becomes a symbol of British colonialism and imperialism into foreign lands where indigenous peoples must either accept assimilation or face annihilation. The Eastern provenance of the paw and its curse can be seen as an agent of reckoning for the sins committed by the British in their ceaseless territorial expansion.
Likewise does the British capitalist system which congealed from the steam and oil of the Industrial Revolution fall under the glare of the author. His talisman of evil offers a juicy opportunity both to extend the possibility that the “curses” of the paw are mere coincidence and to rebuke a system grown so unwieldy with power that it quite literally has begun consuming its labor force. An economic system where those who own the means of production have become so isolated and alienated from those actually responsible for the production of goods that create the profits they enjoy that they have essentially begun a process of colonializing their own countrymen for the sake of exploitation as if they were the backward, poverty-stricken natives in some foreign pagan country thousands of miles away. In the process, they have become exactly like the machines they run 24 hours a day. Not only do owners refuse to admit culpability for the daily acts of manslaughter taking place in their factories, but by their very act of handing over a token payment that falls far short of being adequate compensation for the value of a human life, they prove they do not even possess the necessary emotional components to realize they actually are guilty.
The other primary theme at work in the story of the three wishes made upon a monkey’s paw that go horrifically wrong is directly expressed by the fakir who introduces the talisman to the mechanized world of the British far away from his own world of spiritualism and the occult. According to the Sergeant-Major from the British military, at any rate, the fakir “wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.” That theme of predetermination of fate versus free will to chart one’s own destiny is put on explicit display throughout the tale’s focus on the wishes that are made and the consequences that arrive from the combination of existing fate and the desire to change it. It is within the way that both main themes of the story are implicitly intertwined that “The Monkey’s Paw” achieves its greatest level of meaning.
The unspoken reality is that the fate which is transformed by the wishes upon the monkey’s paw are themselves reflected by the wishes already made within a system that is hopelessly fixed against a family like the Whites. The truth of the matter is that the tragic son of Mr. and Mrs. White is already sealed. Either he will live a long life as a mechanized drone serving to fuel the industry creating the economic wealth that powers the colonialist politics and imperialist military incursions abroad…or he will join that military and become a mechanized drone living out the very same in a way that differs only in the clothing he wears and the climate in which he wears them.
The ultimately irony of “The Monkey’s Paw” has nothing to do with the wishes made upon it. The ultimately irony of the “The Monkey’s Paw” is that Herbert White is destined to live a meaningless life in service to the crown and die a meaningless death in service to the crown whether that monkey on the other side of the globe ever lost his paw or not.