The Monkey’s Paw

by

W. W. Jacobs

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Monkey’s Paw can help.

The Uncertainty of Reality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Fate vs. Freewill Theme Icon
The Uncertainty of Reality Theme Icon
Inside vs. Outside Theme Icon
Industrialization Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Monkey’s Paw, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Uncertainty of Reality Theme Icon

The seemingly-supernatural events of “The Monkey’s Paw” cause both the characters and the reader to question the nature of reality. While those who wish on the monkey’s paw seem to have their wishes supernaturally granted, and then seem to be supernaturally punished for their hubris, nobody knows for sure whether the wish fulfillments and their consequences are supernatural or simple coincidence. After all, Morris’s stories about the paw’s powers could just be fanciful tales, Herbert’s death after the first wish could have been just a coincidence, and the knocking at the door could have many causes. The story never takes a firm position on whether its events are natural or supernatural, and Jacobs is careful to cast doubt at every turn. This leaves the reader grasping for clues and questioning their interpretation of every event, mirroring the troubled state of mind of the story’s characters. Ultimately, this persistent ambiguity suggests that the mere possibility of the supernatural can upend people’s reality and cause them to behave in unwise, erratic ways.

From the moment the monkey paw enters the Whites’ life, it is dubious whether or not it can actually grant wishes and magically change one’s fate. Morris says he cannot get anyone to buy the paw from him because everyone thinks the paw’s power is “a fairy tale,” and he himself doesn’t seem wholly convinced of its powers, telling the Whites that when one makes a wish, “things happen so naturally…that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.” Furthermore, Herbert casts doubt on Morris’s story of the paw, since the traveler tells many stories about his adventures that seem too incredible to be true; perhaps, then, Morris is something of a fabulist. Even Mr. White, who seems to believe most in the paw’s power, feels embarrassment at his own gullibility when Herbert mocks him for buying the paw. All of this doubt cast on the paw’s magical properties suggests the power of magical thinking: perhaps those who want badly enough to believe they can change their fate invent supernatural possibilities, regardless of the evidence.

Even as the White family wishes on the paw and odd things begin to occur, Jacobs casts doubt on what is happening. Mr. White appears stricken after he speaks his first wish aloud, claiming that, “As I wished, [the paw] twisted in my hand like a snake.” However, his wife and son, who have both witnessed this event, remain skeptical: Herbert says he doesn’t believe he’ll ever see the money they wished for, while Mrs. White dismisses her husband’s feeling that the paw moved as mere “fancy.” Even Mr. White appears to retreat from his certainty that something supernatural happened. “Never mind, though,” he says, and Jacobs notes that, by the next day, the paw has been carelessly discarded (“which betokened no great belief in its virtues”). Furthermore, the atmosphere in the house is one of “prosaic wholesomeness,” undercutting any sense that something supernatural has occurred. When Herbert dies in a machinery accident later that day and the family’s wish for 200 pounds is granted in the form of workplace compensation, the story never specifically states that the paw actually magically caused Herbert’s death. In fact, machinery accidents in unsafe factories were common during the time period of the story, so Herbert’s death isn’t so remarkable after all. Perhaps, then, the characters’ desire to believe that they can change their fate has led them to interpret something ordinary as supernatural.

Further associating the supernatural with magical thinking, Mrs. White only truly believes in the magic of the monkey’s paw after the loss of her son has driven her mad. Desperate to have her only child back, she asks her husband to wish Herbert back to life, and she is certain that the subsequent knocking at the door is indeed her son returned from the grave. Mr. White—who has always believed in the paw’s magic—states that the knocking is coming from a rat, but by this point this seems like an attempt to convince himself that his fears of reanimating his son’s mangled corpse have not come true. When he opens the door, the road stands empty, either because he used the third wish to get rid of the corpse or because there was no person at the door in the first place. Neither the characters nor the reader will ever know what really happened, thus showing how trying to supernaturally change their fate has left the Whites unable to interpret their reality. Perhaps magical thinking alone can drive a person mad.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

The Uncertainty of Reality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Uncertainty of Reality appears in each part of The Monkey’s Paw. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
part length:
Get the entire The Monkey’s Paw LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Monkey’s Paw PDF

The Uncertainty of Reality Quotes in The Monkey’s Paw

Below you will find the important quotes in The Monkey’s Paw related to the theme of The Uncertainty of Reality.
Part I Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Herbert White (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Monkey’s Paw
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Sergeant-Major Morris (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Monkey’s Paw
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:
Part II Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Herbert White
Related Symbols: The Monkey’s Paw
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

“Morris said the things happened so naturally…that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”

Related Characters: Mr. White (speaker), Sergeant-Major Morris
Related Symbols: The Monkey’s Paw
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:
Part III Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Mr. White, Mrs. White
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Mr. White, Mrs. White
Related Symbols: The Monkey’s Paw
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Mr. White, Mrs. White
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis: