On a cold and rainy night, Mr. White and his son play chess in their warm parlor while Mrs. White knits comfortably. As they play, Mr. White complains that their villa is too far away from the town and it is difficult to travel there. He is expecting a guest, but the road is bad. What adds to his annoyance is that he loses the game to his son.
Footsteps are heard at the door; Mr. White rises to let in the tall and hale Sergeant-Major Morris. He shakes hands with Mrs. White and Herbert; then, he sits by the fire. Mr. White gives him whiskey and by the time of the third glass he is telling the family strange and fascinating tales from his time abroad. He was gone for twenty-one years, which Mr. White finds amazing; he says that he wishes he could go to India to “look around.”
Morris tells Mr. White that he is better off here than in India. Mr. White asks him about a monkey’s paw, something that Morris mentioned in passing the other day. Morris does not seem very inclined to talk about this bit of “magic,” but his listeners lean forward raptly. He pulls it out of his pocket after taking a sip of his drink.
The family looks at the small shriveled thing and asks what is so special about it. Morris says a fakir put a spell on it in order to show people that fate ruled their lives and they ought not to interfere with it; the person who posses the paw gets three wishes. The family laughs a bit, but they see how serious their guest is. Herbert asks if Morris had three wishes; Morris says he did. Mrs. White asks if anyone else has used the monkey's paw; Morris replies that the first man had three wishes, and that his third was for death.
After a moment of silence Mr. White asks if Morris still needs the paw, since all his wishes are gone. Morris considers the paw, and then throws it on the fire. Mr. White leaps to it with a cry and pulls it out. Morris sighs and tells Mr. White that if he chooses to keep it then he cannot blame Morris for what happens: there may be consequences. All he says further is that Mr. White should wish for something sensible. They then drop the subject and proceed to a pleasant dinner.
After Morris leaves, Herbert says the tale of the paw is probably just another embellished story of India. Mr. White says he gave his friend a trifle for it. Herbert laughs and says they are now going to be rich and famous.
Mr. White picks up the paw and stares at it, musing that he does not know what to wish for since he already has everything he wants. Herbert suggests just asking for two hundred pounds to take care of the house, so Mr. White concedes: he uses the paw to wish for two hundred pounds.
Suddenly there is a crash heard from the piano and Mr. White cries out. They are all startled, especially when Mr. White says the paw moved in his hand. They look around but see no money, so they sit down again by the fire. The evening wears on, melancholy and eerie.
Mr. White sits by the fire after his wife and son retire. He sees faces in it, one of which is horribly simian. He reaches for water to throw on it but accidentally grasps the monkey’s’ paw instead. He shivers and goes to bed.
“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 publication history is that it is quite simply a masterpiece of literary economy. The story is surprisingly short considering its abundance of characters and incidents; it is 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 also often parodied. The Simpsons, for instance, created one of their most memorable Halloween episode segments from the source material offered by Jacobs.
The story is certainly more about the plot and its message rather than the characters, for the Whites are rather thinly drawn. Herbert is a picture of youthful ignorance, Mrs. White is a grieving mother, and Mr. White is a weary and wise older gentleman. Their lack of depth is purposeful, however: it allows the reader to put themselves in the characters’ shoes and see that it is not their profound character failings but rather the simple and understandable element of human greed that brings about the Whites’ deleterious circumstances.
Jacobs demonstrates a familiarity with folktales and classics of world literature, modeling the events of the story off of those in the Arabian Nights (as Mrs. White remarks). The traveler from a distant land, tales of the exotic and eerie, Indian holy men, and magical talismans are perfect hallmarks of these genres. This gives the story, set in an era of industrialism and imperialism, an aura of mystery.
Along with the juxtaposition of the modern (as seen in the factory in which Herbert works) and the primitive (the paw), the story derives its power from its ambiguity and hazy depiction of the tale. Much of the heavy lifting is actually done by the reader as they imagine within their minds the ghoulishness of Herbert’s mangled body standing before the door of his house, banging frantically to get in. And, of course, the question must be asked: is the visitor really Herbert? Much, if not all, of what happens to the Whites can be seen as coincidence. Mr. White could have imagined the paw moved; after all, the mind, when stimulated, can play wondrous tricks. Herbert could have been killed due to an error of his own or merely a fluke of the machine. The two hundred pounds may simply have been what the firm chose to offer, independent of any trick of fate. The knocking at the door could have been the wind, a person playing a trick, or even the wild imaginings of grieving parents. It is this ambiguity that elevates the tale above merely a spooky story.
Expressing similar views, critic Grove Koger notes that the story is “effective not only for what Jacobs does but for what he refrains from doing. A master of economical, unobtrusive prose, he sets a cozy scene–a chess game in front of a fire, a cold and windy night outside–in just a few strokes. Only later does one realize how closely the rest of the story recapitulates the elements of this first brief scene, as the Whites make their moves in a fateful and fatal game while the forces of darkness swirl just beyond the comfortable circle of their lives.” Koger also lauds the story’s “gently humorous touches” which are alongside “macabre examples of what since has come to be known as black humor.”