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The Monkey’s Paw

W. W. Jacobs

The Horror Genre

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Literary Allusions

“The Monkey’s Paw” is a classic of the horror genre that has been copied and adapted numerous times in the century since it was first published. Jacobs wove many common and recognizable elements of the genre into the story: the story opens on a dark and stormy night, the Whites live on a deserted street, doors bang unexpectedly, stairs squeak, and silences are interrupted by the ticking of the clock. These elements heighten the tension and inform readers that something dreadful could occur at any moment. Another element of classic horror is Jacobs’s transformation of the happy, loving White family into people who live amidst death and misery. Herbert’s transformation is the most obvious, from a joking and playful son to a living corpse. Parts of Mr. and Mrs. White also die after Herbert’s accident, and they become obsessed with death and the loss in their lives. Jacobs also draws from classic horror fiction when he plays off the White family’s happiness with readers’ sense of impending doom. As the Whites make lighthearted jokes about the monkey’s paw, for example, readers cringe, sensing that disaster will soon strike.

More than a classic horror piece, “The Monkey’s Paw” is also a modern parable, infused with moral messages and instructions on how to live a more fulfilling life. As with all fables, the story’s morals are familiar: don’t tempt fate, and be careful what you wish for. The White family isn’t wealthy, but they still have everything that’s important, including love, happiness, and a comfortable life. Mr. White even says that he is so content that he wouldn’t even know what to wish for. When he does make his first wish—partly in jest, partly out of curiosity—it is not for untold riches or worldly power, but merely for enough money to finally purchase their house. His small and sensible wish, however, is enough to tempt fate into killing Herbert. Jacobs’s story adheres to the traditional belief that we do not really want what we think we want and that wanting more than what’s sufficient may bring ruin.

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