The Monkey's Paw by W. W. Jacobs: Story & Theme

Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

Read this summary of 'The Monkey's Paw,' by W.W. Jacobs, and find out why you should be content with what you have and be careful what you wish for. This lesson will summarize the work and explain the themes.

Plot Summary

What would you wish for if you had three wishes? Likely something good, right? The family in the short story 'The Monkey's Paw,' by W.W. Jacobs, thought they were wishing for something good too. Little did they know, though, nothing comes without a price. Let's read about this ghostly tale and the lessons this family was to learn only through tragedy.

The Monkey's Paw

The story opens on a rainy night in England. Herbert White and his father Mr. White are playing chess as his mother, Mrs. White, knits by the fire. They're waiting for Mr. White's old friend Sergeant-Major Morris, a war vet of 21 years. When Morris arrives, the family offers him a drink, and after a few more, Mr. White inquires about a monkey's paw Morris had mentioned in a previous conversation.

With the rest of the family quite curious, Morris explains it's a mummified monkey's paw that grants three wishes. Morris claims he's used his wishes, but warns of its powers by stating the previous owner wished death as his last wish. Could you imagine that! What do you think happened that made the previous owner wish to die?

After mentioning this, Morris throws the talisman on the fire, but Mr. White runs to retrieve it. Morris warns White of his fate, and tells his friend not to make any wishes.

Morris tries to get rid of the talisman in the fire, but Mr. White takes fate into his own hands.

After dinner, the sergeant-major leaves, and the family thinks about what to wish for. They decide that with more money, specifically two hundred pounds, they could pay off the house. Mr. White wishes, but throws the paw on the floor as it moves in his hand. Mr. White is frightened, and the family feels uneasy as they head to bed thinking of Morris' warning.

Wish Becomes Tragic Reality

The next morning, the family laughs at their childish fears of the talisman and wonder how a silly wish could harm them. Herbert heads to work, while Mr. and Mrs. White sit down for dinner. That afternoon, Mrs. White notices a man by the front gate, struggling to decide whether or not to enter.

Thinking of the money, Mrs. White runs to the man and brings him in. The man, a representative from Maw and Meggins, Herbert's employer, has come to tell the family that Herbert was killed in a machinery accident. The man goes on to tell the family that they'll receive two hundred pounds as compensation.

Do you think Herbert's accident was a coincidence, or was it the fate Mr. White wished for?

The greed of the White family leads to the death of their son.

Wish for a Miracle

In the third part of the story, the couple buries their son, and soon after, Mrs. White falls into a state of hopelessness. One night, Mr. White is woken by the sound of his wife's voice yelling about the monkey's paw. She begs him for it, and demands Mr. White wish for their son to be alive again. Mr. White is hesitant, thinking about his son's mutilated corpse, but his wife's persistence breaks him. He sits waiting in terror but is relieved when nothing happens in the following minutes. They head to bed.

Time passes, and Mr. White heads downstairs for a candle. As he reaches the foot of the stairs, he hears a knock at the door. He runs back to the bedroom. He tries to tell his wife that it's nothing, but Mrs. White knows it's Herbert. Mrs. White joyously rushes to the bedroom door, but her husband stops her. She breaks free, ignoring her husband's pleading and goes to unlock the door. She is unable to reach the top bolt and begs Mr. White for help.

One Last Wish

Meanwhile, Mr. White feverishly searches for the monkey's paw as the knocking becomes louder. As Mrs. White grabs a chair from the kitchen and begins to unbolt the door, Mr. White wishes his third wish. The door opens, and the couple looks down a deserted street. Can you imagine what would have happened if Mr. White had not made his final wish?

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