The Monkey's Paw
A CRITIQUE | THE TEXT
1902 in collection The Lady of the Barge
Approx. 4,500 words
Plays, radio plays, movies, television episodes
The horror of unintended consequences
"The Monkey's Paw" is a story so well known for its plot that its writing and style are sometimes forgotten. In fact, it seems not to have been written by anyone at all, but must have filtered down to us through the ages as folk tale or fable.
Which is unfair to accomplished short story author W.W. Jacobs who wrote "The Monkey's Paw" and published it in a 1902 collection.
Granted, the story's central notion of magic wishes that go horribly wrong has been with us a much longer time. In an ancient Sanskrit story, "The Two-Headed Weaver", a cloth-maker wins a wish from a magical being and, on the advice of his wife, asks for an extra pair of arms and an extra head to help him double his productivity—only to be killed as a monster by other people.
A story involving three troublesome wishes, "Ali With the Large Member", is purportedly found in some translations of the medieval Arabic compilation of folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights). In this story, a man takes his wife's advice to ask for a bigger penis. The member grows much too large to be of any use, so the second wish is to remove it. The third wish, still at his wife's behest, is to bring it back in its original size.
In 1697, French writer Charles Perrault included "The Three Ridiculous Wishes" in his seminal Mother Goose collection. In that story a woodcutter uses his first wish to get a sausage, the second wish—made in anger—is to attach it to his wife's nose, and the third is to make it go away.
This story has been repeated with variations in many cultures and languages over the years. One English "folk tale" changes the sausage to a black pudding and adds a consolation at the end: the couple get to eat the pudding after it falls from the wife's nose.
The Grimm brothers' fairy tale, "The Fisherman and His Wife", offers a different twist: in this one the wife's demands get increasingly grandiose until, when she asks to be equal to God, the wish-giver takes away everything: "an example of the consequence of impious ambition", we're advised.
You probably notice a certain theme of marital discord in all these stories, often with a greedy wife pushing a husband into making disastrous decisions. Jacobs opicks up on this in "A Monkey's Paw". He also seems aware of the much older versions of the story he's telling. At one point he has the wife of his story, Mrs. White, jokingly talk of needing four pairs of hands, as in the old Indian tale, though she refers to it as from Arabian Nights. After her husband's first wish for money has deadly results, she pushes for a second wish that would likely cause more misery, leaving the husband to use the third wish to prevent it—the usual pattern.
A setup for adults
More than any of the prevous versions, however, Jacobs develops the story as a suspenseful, atmospheric entertainment. He makes it into one of the first great horror stories of the twentieth century.
He takes the time to set up the story. He doesn't want us to read this as a kiddies' fairy tale in which it's just accepted that we regularly go into the woods and find magical beings who give us wishes. The mummified monkey's paw of the title comes with a back story: it's from India, of course, and a spell has been placed on it to grant wishes, expressly to teach people the folly of trying to change fate. It's understood that sorrow is to result from the wishes. Yet, even knowing this, the paw's possessors cannot resist.
The latest owner, our Mr. White, starts small in his wishing and for a while it's not clear that it's even working. After much delay and suspense—with the family joking about what bad thing is going to happen (such as the wished-for money falling on Mr. White's head)—the wish is finally fulfilled in an unexpected and devastating manner.
The couple continue on in "hopeless resignation" through their nightmare, through the remaining wishes and on to the story's dreaded conclusion.
Throughout, the writing is perfect for the story. The dread is ratcheted up but never over the top. There's an understated quality to it found in some of the best horror and fantasy writing, a calmness in the written words that makes their import all the more hysterical. The ending is a perfect example of this: we never see the monstrosity that approaches and, after the big buildup, in the end we're left with an ordinary empty street. An unsettling, yet satisfying, anti-climax.
Tapped into something
Plays, stories and TV shows througout the twentieth century, since "A Monkey's Paw", have continued to ply the "three wishes" literature for fanciful plots, usually with an implied warning to be careful what we wish for. An X-Files episode of 2000 features a genie giving wishes that involved both an oversized penis (as in the Arabian tale) and a returned dead person (as threatened in "The Monkey's Paw"). When Agent Mulder himself gets control of the genie, he wipes out the entire human race with his reckless first wish for "peace on earth".
"The Monkey's Paw" has itself been adapted for stage and screen repeatedly. Jacobs tapped into something with his careful, modern rendition of the story.
I don't buy into the "don't tempt fate" interpretation. I don't think most readers or viewers today accept the concept of fate.
But the theme of unintended consequences does strike a chord. Up to and throughout our era, we've seen the best of intentions bringing hardship and heartbreak upon us. We've seen snake-oil and monkey-paw salesmen promising blue skies but drawing down havoc.
Some of the earlier manifestations of this story seem to be more explicitly warning us to not be greedy, to accept our places in the world, or to trust no one else (especially not a spouse) for advic .
But perhaps the best lesson to take from "The Monkey's Paw" and its forerunners, the underlying one that's been there all along, is that there are no magical solutions to our problems. Taking what seems to be the easy way out can end in disaster, leaving us in the same straits we started from, or worse.
Just ask the Whites, or Ali, or the two-headed weaver, or Mother Goose.
A CRITIQUE | THE TEXT