Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Short Story Review: "The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs

In my sophomore year of high school, I was introduced to "The Monkey's Paw," one of the finest horror stories ever to be written by an author who is known for this short story, but primarily for the concept of being careful what you wish for, or better yet, don't even bother taking an offer with three wishes attached, because there are tight strings that will not loosen. I originally read it in the script form, so I took the opportunity to seek a version that was written in its original prose format. As a single piece of short horror fiction, this may lie on the top of the line, among a class of works by Edgar Allan Poe. It's just clever to play the "three wishes" game and play it very well. This will be an analysis with commentary, so unless you don't mind knowing what happens, it is best you do not read on. That's my spoiler alert.

The story, set in Britain, begins with Mr. White and his son, Herbert, playing a game of chess where Herbert puts his dad in checkmate. It shows that this is "an ordinary night." It doesn't remain "ordinary" for long, because a man by the name of Sergeant-Major Morris comes to the house with a monkey's paw, willing to give it to them. This paw provides the bearer with three wishes on anything they wish. Sergeant-Major inherited this paw from the man before him, who used his three wishes, the only one that was known was that his third wish was for death. This is a clear sign of trouble, provided that the first two wishes were more than likely intended for one thing but resulted in something so drastic and painful that his life became so unbearable and death was the only freedom. Sergeant-Major even mentions that it was created to assert the power of fate. The paw was a test in which the bearer would try to interfere with fate, but instead end up in a situation far worse than before. The overall moral is to not play with fate.

The White family tests out the paw's powers and wish for two hundred pounds, which should be enough to clear all of the payments that they have to put up with. They wonder where the money will pop up and Herbert finds it to be quite hysterical that this is a strange situation. The next day, Herbert heads off to work for the last time. Later on, someone is sent to inform Mr. and Mrs. White that Herbert was killed in a machinery accident. For compensation, the company provided them with... two hundred pounds. The first wish has been granted, but with a cost. The Whites expected the money to just pop up out of thin air, but instead, the money has come about as sympathy money from a company in which Herbert worked due to an accident that took his life. Things aren't going so well...

Time goes by, Herbert is buried, and the Whites wonder what they should do next. Mrs. White then remembers the paw and what kind of power it has. She realizes that she could use the paw to bring Herbert back to life and begs her husband, who is not very fond of the idea, to use the second husband to bring their son back to life. Mr. White does this and the two return to bed. Now we are left to wonder how Herbert will return to the house. While they're in bed, they hear a knock on the door. Mr. White dismisses it for a rat, but Mrs. White really believes it's Herbert. Mr. White takes a match and heads downstairs, while Mrs. White goes to the kitchen and looks out the window to see who is there. Then a race between Mrs. White unlocking the locks on her door PLUS a lock out of her reach and Mr. White looking for the paw occurs. All we are told is that Mr. White makes his wish and when Mrs. White opens the door, all she sees is a winter night. Mr. White comes and comforts her. While the short story only gives us the hint as to what happens, the written play and televised movie state that Mr. White used the final wish to wish that Herbert was peacefully dead.

One of the most mind-boggling literary questions to cross my mind is: what was at the other side of the door? First off, it had to have been Herbert at the other side of the door, right? The wishes did align to this train of thought. The second question was, if Herbert was at the other side of the door, what kind of condition was he in? Was Herbert at the other side of the door in the same form as he was when he left the house that morning or was he a mutilated walking piece of meat that looked like or maybe even acted like a zombie? Mr. White's third wish erases any possible answers from coming about, but how Herbert stood (if he did stand) at the other side of the door is the ultimate, million dollar question that accompanies this short story.

"The Monkey's Paw" is perhaps the key example of the consequences of what you wish for when provided the opportunity to do so. The fact that these wishes end up putting you in a situation far worse than before delivers the moral that such an offer is incredibly overrated. The only concept that could have been older is that of Pandora's Box, where something that showed promise of wealth and riches turned out bringing disease and death. The key difference is that Pandora's Box is just a concept of being careful when you come across suspicious objects. "The Monkey's Paw" has that concept, but it takes the direction of being careful about what choices you make, because you may very well regret them. The White family seemed to be living a rough life, but they were happy and content as a family. After the paw, Mr. and Mrs. White were frazzled, saddened, and most importantly, without a son. They would have been better off just rejecting the offer from Sergeant-Major Morris from using what the paw had to offer.

This should definitely make up a discussion in an English class, a literary discussion, or even a group that's discussing horror as a genre. While it resides in a genre, which does not sit well with literary critics, it is an excellent story with a frightful, but powerful message. It grabs you and it engraves itself in your cranium, leaving you to think years after the story has been told. This is perhaps the story that has grabbed on the tightest and made the biggest impact when it comes to stories I read during my English classes in high school. I still remember reading the play and film and when I went back to read the story, that was the icing on the cake. I highly encourage all of my followers, literary enthusiasts, and horror fiction lovers to search for this story and give it a read. It's not too demanding, so don't worry about time constraints. You can easily finish it in one sitting. Then you will remember it for the rest of your life.

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