Tempting Fate in 'The Monkey's Paw' by W. W. Jacobs

Why Does Sergeant-Major Morris Keep the Paw?

A monkey's paw.
Image courtesy of Tina Lapointe.

In his lifetime, British writer William Wymark Jacobs (1863 - 1943) was a prolific writer known primarily for his humorous stories of maritime adventures. Today, those stories are largely forgotten, but his chilling horror story "The Monkey’s Paw" lives on in its original form, in frequent parodies, and in the countless stories of wishes-that-have-unintended-consequences for which it is the prototype.


(If you’re curious about those "largely forgotten" stories, many are available at About.com’s Classic Literature.)

At its core, "The Monkey’s Paw" raises questions about the consequences of attempting to interfere with fate. The plot centers on a mummified monkey's paw on which an Indian fakir has put a spell. "He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives," one of the characters explains, "and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow."


The story opens on a stormy night. Mr. and Mrs. White, along with their adult son, Herbert, are warm by the fire, awaiting a visitor. When the visitor, Sergeant-Major Morris, arrives, he tells outlandish stories of his adventures in India. He drinks heavily and seems troubled, particularly about the mummified monkey's paw he carries with him.

He explains that the monkey's paw has been enchanted and will grant three men three wishes each.

Though Morris does not say what his own three wishes were, he is so disturbed by their outcome that his face turns white at the memory. He further says that the man who previously had three wishes became so miserable after the first two wishes that his third was for death.

When Morris suddenly throws the paw into the fire, Mr. White hastily retrieves it and keeps it for himself, in spite of Morris's dire warnings.

When Morris has left, Mr. White half-jokingly wishes for 200 pounds to pay off his house.

The next day, Herbert is killed in an accident at work, and his company pays the White exactly 200 pounds in compensation. After grieving for ten days, Mrs. White suddenly remembers the paw and forces Mr. White to wish Herbert alive again. She misses her son, but Mr. White already understands that the wish will bring them a horrific creature, disfigured from the accident and from ten days of decomposition. When the knock on the door comes, Mrs. White struggles to unbolt the latch while Mr. White rushes to find the monkey's paw and make one last wish. When Mrs. White finally gets the door open, the street is empty; Mr. White has wished for Herbert to be dead in his grave again.

Why Does Sergeant-Major Morris Keep the Paw?

At first, it's easy to assume that Sergeant-Major Morris keeps the paw either to prevent other people from experiencing its attendant unhappiness or to remind himself of the lessons he's learned. He speaks of it in grave tones. He pales at the memory of his wishes. He warns Mr. White to stay away from it.

But on closer examination, it seems as if perhaps he hasn't learned any lessons at all.

In spite of the suffering the paw has brought him, he still seems unable to resist its allure, and his approach to it is conflicted.

If he had wanted to, he could have destroyed it long ago. At the very least, he could have kept it a secret. Yet he brings it up with Mr. White (even though he later regrets it and tries to change the subject).

His attempts to keep the paw away from Mr. White seem half-hearted. He advises Mr. White to throw the paw back on the fire, but he settles for absolving himself of blame for anything that happens. When Mr. White asks how to make the wishes, Morris could refuse to tell him, but instead he gives him the instructions and another warning.

He repeatedly warns Mr. White not to keep the paw; and, if he must keep it, not to use it; and, if he must use it, to "wish for something sensible." This last phrase -- to "wish for something sensible" -- reveals that he has not fully accepted the lessons of the monkey's paw.

There isn't a sensible wish that can be made on the monkey's paw. That’s the nature of the spell.

Mr. White asks Morris, "If you could have another three wishes, […] would you have them?" Morris's answer is surprising. Instead of recoiling from the suggestion, he twice says, “I don't know.” So there's a part of him still imagining how a person might outsmart the paw by wishing "for something sensible."

Irresistible Temptation

The Whites are both skeptical and hopeful about the magic of the paw, and Mr. White's first wish is partly a jest. Yet it's sincere, too, because he takes the time to think of something he really wants.

Originally, he's content. "I don’t know what to wish for, and that's a fact," he says. "It seems to me I've got all I want." But then Herbert suggests wishing for the money to pay off the house, thus planting the seeds of discontent. The family is tempted both by money and by curiosity.

For the second wish, Mrs. White is sorely tempted by her grief and by the misperception that something good could come from wishing on the monkey's paw.

In the end, perhaps it doesn't matter that Sergeant-Major Morris doesn't take a more active stance to protect the Whites from the monkey's paw. The choice isn't his, it's theirs. They are the ones who can choose to heed his warnings, to resist temptation, and to be content with their lives. Or they can choose to interfere with fate and suffer the consequences.  

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Sustana, Catherine. "Tempting Fate in 'The Monkey's Paw' by W. W. Jacobs." ThoughtCo, Oct. 29, 2014, thoughtco.com/tempting-fate-in-the-monkeys-paw-2990553. Sustana, Catherine. (2014, October 29). Tempting Fate in 'The Monkey's Paw' by W. W. Jacobs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tempting-fate-in-the-monkeys-paw-2990553 Sustana, Catherine. "Tempting Fate in 'The Monkey's Paw' by W. W. Jacobs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tempting-fate-in-the-monkeys-paw-2990553 (accessed November 19, 2017).