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.