Mr. White, the protagonist of “The Monkey’s Paw,” struggles to accept his fate in life. However, when an acquaintance gives him a magical dried monkey’s paw, which supposedly has the power to grant three wishes, Mr. White believes that he can finally exert his will on the world in a quick and consequence-free manner. When he tries to do this by wishing for money, though, his wish goes awry: the money comes as compensation for the work-related death of his only son, Herbert. The result of this wish, and the sinister results of the other wishes to which the story alludes, suggest that meddling with fate comes at a cost, one that outweighs its benefits. In this way, W.W. Jacobs suggests that it’s best to make the most of one’s fate, rather than trying arrogantly to intervene through cheap or treacherous means.
From the beginning of the story, Jacobs presents Mr. White as a man who cannot accept his fate. In the opening scene, Mr. White is playing a chess game with his son, Herbert, when he realizes too late that his son is going to win. He tries to distract Herbert by telling him to listen to the storm outside and by discussing their expected visitor, but Herbert wins anyway. When Mr. White erupts in anger, Herbert and Mrs. White share a “knowing glance,” showing that this response is typical of Mr. White’s character. Thus, this scene establishes Mr. White as someone who is always trying to change or avoid his fate—and, with significant foreshadowing, as someone who always fails in these attempts.
The arrival of White’s friend Sergeant-Major Morris with a magical, wish-granting monkey’s paw presents Mr. White with an opportunity to change his life, making him believe that he will be able to exert his free will to control his own destiny. However, Jacobs immediately establishes that this power is sinister: of the last two men who wished on the monkey’s paw, the first man’s final wish was for death, and the second man (Morris himself) deeply regrets ever owning the paw. In fact, the fakir (an Indian holy man) who created the enchanted paw said himself that he did so because “he wanted to show that fate ruled people’s lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow.” Yet Mr. White wishes upon the monkey’s paw anyways, even though he claims he has everything he could ever want already. Mr. White’s actions show the human tendency towards arrogance: one can be tempted to try to design their destiny, even when their present circumstances are pleasant and even when warned of the consequences of meddling in fate.
As promised, the monkey’s paw brings disaster, teaching the White family the fakir’s lesson. Mr. White’s first wish is for the 200 pounds he would need to pay off his mortgage, and he receives this sum from Herbert’s company as compensation for his death in a machinery accident. Herbert’s death proves that the fakir’s words are true: when one tries to control their own fate, they will suffer the consequences. However, Mrs. White still believes that she can fix their tragic fate through more meddling: in her grief, she goads Mr. White into wishing for Herbert to come back to life. Mr. White, cautious after the disastrous results of their first wish, is certain that this next wish would summon a grotesque, decayed version of his son, but he acquiesces to his wife nonetheless and later hears a sinister, persistent knocking at the door. In this moment, Mr. White knows that he has erred, and he uses the monkey’s paw to make an unnamed wish that seemingly causes the knocking to cease.
While it might seem like this final wish—a reversal of his second wish—is an indication that Mr. White has learned his lesson, he has, in fact, meddled once more in fate. Jacobs never specifies what the consequences for this final wish will be, but his writing suggests that its effects will reverberate in more sinister ways to come. While the supernatural knocking has stopped, “the echoes of it were still in the house,” and a cold wind rushes into the Whites’ house as he and his sobbing, grief-stricken wife run towards the street into an unknown fate.
Fate vs. Freewill ThemeTracker
Fate vs. Freewill Quotes in The Monkey’s Paw
Without the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnam Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly. Father and son were at chess, the former, who possessed ideas about the game involving radical changes.
“[The monkey’s 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.”
“If the tale about the monkey’s paw is not more truthful than those he has been telling us…we sha’nt make much out of it.”
“I don’t know what to wish for, and that’s a fact…It seems to me I’ve got all I want.”
He sat alone in the darkness, gazing at the dying fire, and seeing faces in it. The last face was so horrible and so simian that he gazed at it in amazement.
There was an air of prosaic wholesomeness about the room which it had lacked on the previous night, and the dirty, shrivelled little paw was pitched on the sideboard with a carelessness which betokened no great belief in its virtues.
But the days passed, and expectation gave place to resignation–the hopeless resignation of the old, sometimes miscalled, apathy. Sometimes they hardly exchanged a word.
“He has been dead ten days, and besides he–I would not tell you else, but–I could only recognize him by his clothing. If he was too terrible for you to see then, how now?”
But her husband was on his hands and knees groping wildly on the floor in search of the paw. If he could only find it before the thing outside got in.
A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side…The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.