On a chilly, rainy night, the blinds are drawn and the fireplace is burning inside the White family’s home, Laburnam Villa. Mr. White and his son, Herbert, are playing chess. Mr. White makes a daring move with his king, so unnecessary and dangerous that Mrs. White, who is knitting by the fire, comments on it.
Mr. White realizes, too late, that he is going to lose because of his mistake, so he tries to distract Herbert by telling him to listen to the wind raging outside. Herbert “checks” Mr. White’s king anyway. Then Mr. White remarks about how their expected guest might not be coming on such a stormy night. Herbert captures his father’s king and wins the game.
Mr. White tries and fails to change his fate of losing the game. This foreshadows the other events in the plot where Mr. White attempts to alter his fate but still suffers defeat. Here, Mr. White believes that he can alter his fate, but that turns out to be an illusion, as he loses anyway.
Mr. White suddenly begins angrily shouting about how the worst part of living in “out-of-the-way places” like they do is how muddy and dangerous the roads become when it rains. Mrs. White tells him that he might win the next game, and she and Herbert share a “knowing glance.” Mr. White’s anger fades and he hides his “guilty grin.”
Mr. White becomes angry when he cannot change his fate through his own actions. His wife and child’s reactions show that this outburst is typical of his character. Their acceptance of his personality and his fading anger show the Whites’ happy family life.
The expected guest arrives and Mr. White introduces him to the others as Sergeant-Major Morris. Mr. White gives the guest some whiskey and after three glasses, Morris entertains the Whites with stories of his adventures in faraway places. Mr. White remarks that he would like to go to India someday. Morris says, “Better where you are.”
The Whites’ fascination with Morris’s stories shows the allure of exotic places, in contrast to the sinister foreign elements that will appear later. Also, the reader sees Mr. White’s restlessness and desire for more than he currently possesses.
Mr. White says that Morris mentioned something about a monkey’s paw the other day, but Morris says that it’s “nothing worth hearing.” Mrs. White asks about it and Morris reveals that “it’s just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps.” The Whites lean forward in interest, so Morris pulls the mummified paw from India out of his pocket.
Morris’s hesitation to talk about the paw suggests his knowledge of the trouble it brings. The sinister nature of the paw is highlighted by the fact that this object comes to the Whites’ homes from India, a place considered to be mysterious and potentially dangerous.
Morris says the paw “had a spell put on it by an old fakir…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.” The fakir’s spell has given the paw the power to grant three wishes to three different men.
Herbert asks if Morris has had his three wishes. Morris says that he has, and his wishes really were granted. Morris also reveals that he got the paw after the first man used his third wish to wish for death. He only keeps it now either for “fancy” or because he cannot sell it, because it has “caused enough mischief already” and because no one else will believe in its magic.
The consequences of wishing on the paw are so great that its first owner chose death due to the suffering brought on by his first two wishes. However, the fact that Morris cannot sell the paw because no one believes the story of its magic raises the possibility that the paw may not be able to grant wishes and cause suffering after all.
Mr. White asks whether, if Morris had three more wishes, he would use them again, and Morris says that he doesn’t know. He then he throws the paw into the fire, but Mr. White grabs the paw before it can burn. Morris tells him that the paw should be burned, but Mr. White can keep it if he wants. He tells Mr. White how to use it, but warns him there will be consequences. Morris tells Mr. White, “If you must wish…wish for something sensible.” After that, the family returns to the entertaining stories of India.
The consequences of altering fate are so great that Morris wishes to destroy the paw, yet, if he had the chance to wish all over again, he’s not certain he would say no, thus showing the attraction of being able to alter fate, even when one knows the consequences. Mr. White also covets the power of the paw, even though Morris has warned him of the suffering it will bring.
After Morris leaves, Herbert says that the family shouldn’t put much importance on the monkey’s paw, since Morris told many tall tales that night. Mr. White reveals, slightly embarrassed, that he made Morris take a small amount of money for the paw, at which point Morris told him again to destroy it. Herbert teases his father, telling him to wish that the family become “rich, and famous and happy.” Mr. White says he would not know what to wish for, since he already has everything he would ever need.
Herbert casts doubt on Morris’s credibility, and by extension the credibility of the paw’s magic. His teasing of his father represents a skeptical point of view which does not believe that one can drastically alter their own fate. Mr. White’s statement that he already possesses everything he needs shows the irresistible temptation he feels when he wishes on the paw anyway.
Herbert suggests that Mr. White should wish for the money they need to pay off the mortgage on their home, two hundred pounds. Herbert then winks at Mrs. White and sits down to play the piano. Mr. White wishes upon the monkey’s paw for the two hundred pounds.
This scene marks a turning point in the story, when Mr. White makes the impactful choice to change his life by wishing upon the paw, a choice which will be followed by tragic consequences for his family.
Mr. White drops the paw and cries out, saying that he felt the paw twist in his hand “like a snake.” Herbert remarks that he doesn’t see any money and “I bet I never shall.” Mrs. White says that the movement must have just been Mr. White’s imagination. The family sits down by the fire to relax, but Mr. White is still jumpy. Herbert continues to tease his father about the supposed magic of the paw.
Mr. White feels the paw move, seeming to prove its magic, but neither of the other characters see it, so the reality of the magic remains uncertain. Herbert remains skeptical of the Whites’ fate actually changing at all due to the paw and, at this moment, he appears to be correct.
After Mr. and Mrs. White go to bed, Herbert stays up, watching the fire. He sees faces in the flames, one of which looks like a terrifying monkey’s face. Herbert gives an “uneasy laugh,” puts the fire out, and picks up the monkey’s paw. “With a little shiver,” he goes to bed.