Sunday with Zin: W. W. Jacobs: “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902)

Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnum 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 chances, putting his king into such sharp and unnecessary perils that it even provoked comment from the white-haired old lady knitting placidly by the fire.
“Hark at the wind,” said Mr. White, who, having seen a fatal mistake after it was too late, was amiably desirous of preventing his son from seeing it.
“I’m listening,” said the latter grimly surveying the board as he stretched out his hand. “Check.”
“I should hardly think that he’s come tonight, ” said his father, with his hand poised over the board.
“Mate,” replied the son.
“That’s the worst of living so far out,” bawled Mr. White with sudden and unlooked-for violence; “Of all the beastly, slushy, out of the way places to live in, this is the worst. Path’s a bog, and the road’s a torrent. I don’t know what people are thinking about. I suppose because only two houses in the road are let, they think it doesn’t matter.”
“Never mind, dear,” said his wife soothingly; “perhaps you’ll win the next one.”
Mr. White looked up sharply, just in time to intercept a knowing glance between mother and son. the words died away on his lips, and he hid a guilty grin in his thin grey beard.

Hello, I am Zin! A few weeks ago we read “The Monkey’s Paw” as part of the whole package of goodies presented by Lorrie Moore in the form of her New Yorker short story, “Referential” which also led to “Signs and Symbols” by Vladimir Nabokov. “The Monkey’s Paw” is the last of the trio! You can read it online too!

It is hard to appreciate classics sometimes, because it is easy to forget they were once unique! In college, a professor once remarked how all his students complained that Alexander Pope wrote in clichés! Well, he did, actually, but they were not clichés at the time he wrote them for the first time, so it is a different experience reading Pope now that “to err is human” and “hope springs eternal” and all the others are common phrases!

So how many different three-wishes-with-bad-consequences stories have you seen or read in movies, television, stories? This has been used by everything (The Twilight Zone and The X Files come to mind right away; there is an entire section in TV Tropes covering its use in tv, film, video games and whatever else there is). But this was written in 1902 (TV Tropes lists some folk tales as examples from even earlier), and should be appreciated!

When I saw the term “monkey’s paw” in “Referential,” I had a vague idea that it was some kind of talisman, but I did not know the origin! In her interview Moore credits the W. W. Jacobs story, but I do not recognize it, so I do not know how I came to know the term! Maybe I read it in junior high school (it is that sort of story) but forgot.

The story is about Mr. White, who gets the paw from his visiting friend, and against all advice, listens to his son and uses it to wish for money. Not that much, just enough to pay for his house! He is not really greedy! And he does get the money! But at a great cost! Then at the urging of his wife he makes another wish, which seems to be turning out terribly – and uses the final wish to reverse the second one in the nick of time!

The story has some interesting details! There are spoilers ahead, so you should read the story first!

Look at the opening paragraphs above – Mr. White does not like to lose, he is not above tricking his son into overlooking the checkmate move after his mistake opens the door! And his friend, Sergent-Major Morris, who has been in India for some time – if we look at their interaction, Mr. White tries to outdo him, and that is how he ends up with the paw though Morris warns him again and again!

But then I think – why has Morris kept the paw? It seems he knows how disastrous it will be! It is of no use to him, since his three wishes are up. He is reluctant to give it to Mr. White, but does so – why? Maybe because there is some enmity between them going back all the years from the time they worked the docks together? Has he been saving it to give to an enemy, someone he wishes to harm, and White just comes along and makes it easy? Did he use it at all, or was he telling a tale to make sure White, who would naturally think himself smarter, would use it? I think there is a whole story in the relationship between these two!

I think it is also interesting that the first wish, for money, is suggested by the son! The death of the son is what brings the money – so it is not just the wisher, but the suggester who suffers the consequences! And likewise the second wish, for the son to come back from the dead, is something Mrs. White insists on! And that is an interesting choice by the writer, because it puts her in the position of Eve, the temptress who causes trouble!

Mr. White is hesitant but finally gives in to her, and she hears the knock on the door and rushes to greet her newly reincarnated son – and we will never know if he is ok, or if he is, as Mr. White fears, torn apart by his original fatal injuries and decayed on top of that! Can you imagine their marriage from here on in – she will forever blame him for refusing her the reunion, while he will remain convinced his third wish (which we never hear, but presumably he wishes away the supposed reincarnation) has saved them both great heartache! And even if he reconsiders, what torture that will bring for him, that he might have twice killed his son! He will never know for sure!

So while it may seem a simple “ghost story” there is a bit more to it!

Despite the link above to americanliterature.com, Jacobs was an English author – he was born, raised, educated, and died in England. He wrote many short stories and a few novels, many with maritime settings, and some that were what we would call “horror” in the Poe sense. Horror used to be much more gentlemanly than it is today, I think! But then again, so was fiction – look at the wording of that opening section, it is another era entirely! It is the type of story kids groan at because the language is so different, but really, it is about something very familiar: someone thinking he is smarter than he is, being hoisted on his own petard – the most common tragic flaw, hubris!

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