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46 pages 1 hour read

W.W. Jacobs

The Monkey's Paw

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1902

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Summary: “The Monkey’s Paw”

W. W. Jacobs (William Wymark Jacobs) wrote his well-known horror story “The Monkey’s Paw” in 1902. The short story is about the White family and the three wishes granted to them through an ominous monkey’s paw. The “monkey’s paw” has become part of popular culture and appeared, for example in The Simpsons television show as part of its Treehouse of Terror episodes. This guide cites the paragraphs of the Project Gutenberg version.

Written in the third person, the story begins on a cold, dreary night with Mr. White and Herbert White (a father and adult son) playing chess next to their fireplace and Mrs. White (Herbert’s mother) knitting. While the Whites wait for a guest to arrive, Mr. White complains their home is a terrible and remote place to live. Then, Mr. White hears the footsteps of their guest outside: Sergeant-Major Morris. Morris shares stories of his exotic travels. Mr. White asks Morris about a monkey’s paw he mentioned. Morris has it with him and shows the Whites a dried-up monkey’s paw from Asia, explaining that a holy man placed a spell on it to grant three wishes to any person. The family about the wishes Morris made, but he seems shaken by the paw and its powers. He warns the Whites that the monkey’s paw was intended to show that “fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow” (26). He solemnly shares that he received the paw after the last man who had it made his final wish: for death.

Morris tosses the monkey paw into the fire, but Mr. White retrieves it intact, ignoring Morris’s suggestion that it would be better to let it burn. Morris’s final recommendation is to “wish for something sensible” (47). After Morris leaves, Mr. White debates what to wish for, reasoning, “I’ve got all I want” (54). Yet, motivated by Herbert’s insistence, Mr. White wishes for 200 pounds, the amount needed to finish paying off the house. He feels the monkey’s paw strangely curl in his hand.

The next day, without any magical sums of money in sight, the family laughs off the paw, and Herbert leaves for work. Hours later, Mrs. White sees a strange man outside their house. Inviting the visitor in, he states he is from Maw and Meggins—Herbert’s workplace. The visitor says Herbert is badly hurt from the machinery but not in pain. Mrs. White at first interprets this to mean that Herbert is not badly injured but realizes the visitor means he is dead. The visitor adds that Maw and Meggins disclaim any liability but offer 200 pounds as compensation for the loss of life. Mrs. White shrieks upon hearing the sum, and Mr. White collapses.

In the story’s third and final part, the Whites bury their son two miles from their home. Days pass, and grief takes a toll on them both. Mrs. White tells Mr. White to retrieve the paw and “wish our boy alive again” (112). Mr. White objects, reminding his wife that Herbert would be unrecognizable due to the severity of the accident and how many days have passed. Nevertheless, Mrs. White demands the wish, and Mr. White, holding the paw, makes it.

The two wait in their dark home. No one appears, and they go to bed. Mr. White later goes downstairs to get a candle and hears a small knock on the front door. Frozen in fear, he hears another knock. He flees upstairs in terror. Mrs. White hears the knock and exclaims, “It’s Herbert!” (135). She runs down to the bolted door, but she cannot manage to unlock it. Mr. White frantically searches for the paw. As Mrs. White finally unlocks the door, the narrator says of Mr. White, “He heard the creaking of the bolt as it came slowly back, and at the same moment he found the monkey’s paw, and frantically breathed his third and last wish” (143).

The knocking stops. Mr. White hears his wife’s wails of disappointment following the opening of the front door. Mr. White runs to her. Outside, there is only the quiet, deserted road.

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