1. “He was caught in the machinery,” said the visitor at length in a low voice.
“Caught in the machinery,” repeated Mr. White, in a dazed fashion, “yes.”
Herbert White’s death has a literal meaning and two metaphorical meanings. Literally, Herbert died because he became entangled in the machinery, his body so mangled that Mr. White was able to identify his son only by examining his clothes. Metaphorically, however, Herbert died because after being caught in the machinery of fate, which went awry after Mr. White tampered with fate by making his wish for more money. A subtler metaphorical meaning has to do with Herbert’s employer. An undercurrent of class consciousness runs through “The Monkey’s Paw,” a story that concerns the fate of three lower-middle-class people. It is possible to read the Whites’ dire fate not as something they brought upon themselves through greediness, but instead as the unfair effect of a modest wish made by a family struggling with debts and a small income. Jacobs suggests that anyone, even the most moral reader, would behave exactly as the Whites did, making a small, practical wish just to see what might happen.
Jacobs uses Herbert’s death to suggest that society is unfair to the good, hardworking people in the lower classes. Evidence of this worldview comes in the form of the Maw and Meggins representative, who shamefacedly announces that his company will decline to take any responsibility for the accident, but will effectively offer Mr. and Mrs. White a bribe to keep quiet. The first word of the company name, maw, means voracious, gaping mouth. The suggestion is that Herbert has been swallowed whole by a cruel world, and all because of one understandable wish made by a man who simply wants to own his own house.
2. [H]e found the monkey’s paw, and frantically breathed his third and last wish. The knocking ceased suddenly . . . a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and then to the gate beyond. The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.
The ambiguity of these final lines makes it possible to read “The Monkey’s Paw” as something other than a horror story or cautionary tale. We never see Herbert’s walking corpse with our own eyes, and neither do Mr. White, who is cowering upstairs, or Mrs. White, who cannot manage to open the door in time. One could therefore argue that the monkey’s paw holds no power at all and that Herbert would have died had Mr. White never even made the wish. The frantic knocking at the door is perhaps someone else entirely who goes away just as Mr. White makes his third wish. The plausibility of this interpretation adds a new dimension to “The Monkey’s Paw,” making it more than just another horror story.