The Monkey's Paw: Synopsis and Study Questions

The Famous Tale of Choice and Fateful Consequences

The Monkey's Paw
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"The Monkey's Paw," written by W.W. Jacobs in 1902, is a famous supernatural tale of choice and tragic consequences that's been adapted and imitated for both stage and screen. The story revolves around the White family—mother, father, and their son, Herbert—who receive a fateful visit from a friend, Sergeant-Major Morris. Morris, late of India, shows the Whites a monkey's paw fetish he's acquired as a souvenir of his travels. He tells the Whites that the paw is reputed to grant three wishes to any person who possesses it, but also cautions that the talisman is cursed and that those who accept the wishes it grants do so at great cost.

When Morris tries to throw the monkey's paw into the fireplace, Mr. White quickly retrieves it, despite his guest's earnest protests that the thing is not to be trifled with:

"It had a spell put on it by an old fakir," said the sergeant-major, "a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow." 

Ignoring Morris' warnings, Mr. White decides to keep the paw, and at Herbert's suggestion, he wishes for £200 to pay off the mortgage. As he makes the wish, White claims to feel the monkey's paw twisting in his grip, however, no money appears. Herbert teases his father for believing the paw might have magic properties. "I don't see the money and I bet I never shall," he says, little knowing just how true his statement will turn out to be.

A day later, Herbert is killed in an accident at work, mangled to death in the twisting grasp of a piece of machinery. The company disavows liability but does offer the Whites a payment of £200 for their loss. More than a week after the funeral, a distraught Mrs. White begs her husband to wish their son back to life, to which he eventually agrees. It's only when the couple hears a knock at the door that they realize they don't know if Herbert, who has been dead and buried 10 for days, is going to return to them as he was prior to his accident—or in the form of a mangled, decomposing ghoul. In desperation, Mr. White uses his final wish...and when Mrs. White finally opens the door, there's no one there.

Questions for Study and Discussion

  • This is a very short story, and Jacobs has a lot to do in very little time to achieve his goals. How does he reveal which characters are trustworthy and reliable, and which ones may not be? 
  • Why do you think Jacobs chose a monkey's paw as the talisman? Is there symbolism attached to a monkey that isn't associated with another animal? 
  • Is the central theme of the story simply, "Be careful what you wish for," or are there broader implications?
  • This story has been compared to the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Is there a work of Poe's this story closely relates to? What other works of fiction does "The Monkey's Paw" evoke?
  • How does Jacobs use foreshadowing in this story? Was it effective in building a sense of dread, or did you find it melodramatic and predictable?
  • Are the characters consistent in their actions? Are they fully developed? 
  • How essential is setting to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else?
  • How would this story have been different if it were set in the present day?
  • "The Monkey's Paw" is considered a work of supernatural fiction. Do you agree with the classification? Why or why not?
  • What do you think Herbert would have looked like if Mrs. White had opened the door before Mr. White used the final wish? Would it have been an undead Herbert standing on the threshold?
  • Does the story end the way you expected? Do you think the reader is supposed to believe that everything that took place was just a series of coincidences, or that there really were metaphysical forces involved?