From the storm that rages outside the family’s home in the beginning of the story, to the supposedly cursed object Morris brings back from his travels abroad, to the knocking at the door (potentially by a reanimated corpse), all of the story’s dangerous elements come from outside to menace the safety of the home. As such, “The Monkey’s Paw” can be read as an allegory of British anxiety over their changing homeland, particularly addressing the xenophobia of white Britons. Jacobs published “The Monkey’s Paw” at a time when his native Britain was drastically expanding its empire beyond its borders. While imperialism offered Britain more land, natural resources, and monetary wealth, many white Britons feared seeing their familiar world change under the influence of foreign cultures, particularly if that meant changing racial demographics. Jacobs, however, questions the basis of that fear. At the end of the story, when Mr. White opens the door to find an empty road rather than a sinister corpse knocking, it seems possible that he has been afraid over nothing. Jacobs thereby suggests that white Britons’ anxiety over changing culture is rooted in imagined threats, not real ones.
The story begins with the lines, “Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnam Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly.” This establishes immediately that outside the family home, the world is unpleasant and cold, while inside, it is safe and cozy. As expected, harm befalls the family only when someone comes in from outside, an acquaintance described as a “visitor from distant parts.” The visitor, Sergeant Major Morris, speaks of “strange scenes and doughty deeds, of wars and plagues and strange peoples,” which gives his travels a sinister air. The danger of admitting this outsider into the home becomes clear when the monkey paw the Whites purchase from him appears to lead to the death of their son. The notion that outside influence brings misfortune to a once-safe family thereby establishes a dichotomy of the inside being safe and familiar, while the outside is dangerous and unknown.
Crucially, Jacobs associates danger with faraway places, making a specific connection between India (then a British colony) and the sinister. This gives the characters’ anxiety about dangers from outside a specifically racist and xenophobic overtone, especially since the family’s surname is “White” and they associate India with evil. This is clearest in the fact that Morris has brought the magical monkey paw from India, and he notes that the paw is dangerous because a fakir (a holy man) put a spell on it to teach others a lesson about fate. This references an antiquated, colonial view that people who lived outside of Europe and did not practice Christianity practiced black magic, and it shows that the characters share a basic belief that the influence of Indian culture is a threat, even as they are also fascinated by it (and want to enjoy its material resources).
The most horrific outside threat to the family home is the possibly that the mangled, decaying corpse of their son Herbert is knocking at their door. As he thinks he hears his undead son knocking at the door, Mr. White searches frantically for the monkey’s paw, thinking “if he could only find it before the thing outside got in.” The emphasis Jacobs puts on the dichotomy of outside and inside during this scene emphasizes the family’s fear of the outside world and their feeling of safety inside their home. However, once Mr. White opens the door, he sees nothing but a “quiet and deserted road,” either because he successfully used his third wish to get rid of his undead son, or because there was no one at the door in the first place. One reading of the story—the one in which Herbert’s corpse really was at the door—would suggest that outside threats are real and should be guarded against. The family seemed to truly be happy and content before the outside influence of Morris and his foreign object. However, if Herbert was never at the door and the paw wasn’t magic at all, then Mr. White opening the door to an empty road would suggest that the dangers of the outside world are actually imagined. (And further, would mean that the cause of Herbert’s death was the greed and callousness of homegrown British factory owners, not foreign cultures.) Regardless, both readings are somewhat damning of British imperialism: in the latter reading, the British are irrationally racist, and in the former, their lives have been ruined by the fakir teaching them a lesson about meddling with fate. If the White family represents white Britons, then the fakir’s lesson is also about the price of imperialism, whereby Britain tried to meddle in the fates of other countries. Perhaps the real “outside threat” that they fear is British colonial subjects taking revenge.
Inside vs. Outside ThemeTracker
Inside vs. Outside 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.”
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.
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.