In “The Monkey’s Paw” by William Wymark Jacobs, the White family receives a seemingly supernatural monkey’s paw that grants three wishes. After making a first disastrous wish, the Whites experiences distress as their wishes lead to greater tragedy. At surface value, the fictitious story is a cautionary tale of the implications of meddling with fate; however, after Mr. White scrambles to find the paw to make a final wish, he only finds an empty street. The final cliffhanger begs the question: what was Mr. White’s final wish? Through this ambiguous ending, Jacobs illustrates how fate, free will, and the power of the supernatural are inextricably intertwined.
The power of the paw and the ramifications of the wishes show how fate shapes every life. As Sergeant-Major, the family friend explained, “it 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” (part 1, para 26). By ruling over people like a king over his dominion, fate appears god-like and above human control. In the most literal way possible, Jacobs explains how tampering with it can only lead to tragedy. Sergeant-Major’s words foreshadow the misfortune that befalls Mr. White who becomes the living testimony of fate’s hands. While Mr. White receives the two hundred pounds from his first wish, he does not receive it as Herbert, his son, describes: “maybe it could drop on your head from the sky”, or as he also puts it, “you know what? You’ll probably gonna find the money like in the middle of your bed” (part 1, para 66; part 2, para 3). Instead, the money comes as compensation from the company for Herbert’s death. Jacobs purposefully includes these details as a jest towards lofty fairytales to further emphasize the ironic twist of fate – things do not always go as expected. The company worker who comes to deliver the news to the family says, “‘Now, I must beg you to forgive me, for I am only their servant at being theirs ordered’” (part 2, para 25). Without details of Herbert’s accident or the unscrupulous company, the worker’s situation appears analogous to Mr. White’s relation to fate. Just as the company dictates the actions of their workers, so too does fate decide each person’s destiny. With his lack of freedom in this decision, the worker pleads for understanding, further underscoring how powerless he is in representing his own beliefs over those of the companies. Jacobs uses these details to suggest that Mr. White’s final wish – his last act of trespass against fate – resulted in both the disappearances of his wife and his resurrected son.
Although the story could simply be the ominous work of fate, Mr. White’s three wishes also highlight the saving power of free will. Instead of a bleak ending, Jacobs writes ambiguously to possibly show a redemptive story for Mr. White. For the first wish, Herbert suggests paying off the house mortgage, “Aye, why don’t you just wish for something like… like three hundred pounds” (part 1, para 54), and in the second wish, Mrs. White demands Mr. White resurrects his son. “Wish!” (part 3, para 39). Understanding the bitter consequence of the first one, Mr. White subserviently wishes again, after which he “looks up at the cold figure of his wife” (part 3, para 32). Like a child being reprimanded, he is positioned as inferior and below the desires of a figure with the likeness of his wife. The person he sees is no longer his wife but the forlorn mother of their dead son. For both wishes, he does not act upon his own desires or interests but rather those around him; therefore, when he hears the knocking from the door, he takes action to “[find] the monkeys’s paw, and frantically [breathe] his third and last wish” (part 3, para 47). Unlike the previous times he makes the wish, this final one is his. By including this pronoun, Jacobs shows Mr. White’s change from docile to independent. From this growth, the knocking on the door is the manifestation of his servility and lack of autonomy. The stillness that follows his wish could represent a form of triumphant serenity where fate nor people control his life. Jacobs uses this vague but hopeful ending to show the ultimate victor: free will.
Ultimately, “The Monkey’s Paw” is a story of how the past affects the future. Whether Jacobs intends to warn meddlers of fate or celebrate free will, he crafts a story that shows how deeply connected each concept is to one another. How can destiny exist when man has choice? What separates luck from fate? While Jacobs does not answer these questions, he provides the framework for self-reflection and room for curiosity. From the ambiguous ending and the analogies throughout the text, Jacobs instructs the reader to open the door to new possibilities and opportunities. Instead of being on autopilot and following a programed routine, we ought to use our free will to explore the world and take control of our own lives. If we do this, we can be the leader of our own fate; if we don’t, we can expect a similar tragedy to Mr. White’s.
Jacobs, William. “The Monkey’s Paw.” The Lady of the Barge, Alan Rodgers Books, 1902.