The Whites’ downfall comes as the result of wishing for more than what they actually needed. Even though Mr. White feels content with his life—he has a happy family, a comfortable home, and plenty of love—he nevertheless uses the monkey’s paw to wish for money that he doesn’t really need. As Jacobs suggests, making one seemingly harmless wish only intensifies and magnifies desire as each subsequent wish becomes more outlandish. After receiving two hundred pounds for Herbert’s death, for example, Mrs. White jumps to the conclusion that the paw has unlimited power. She forces Mr. White to wish to bring Herbert back to life, a wish far more serious than their first. Unchecked greed, therefore, only leads to unhappiness, no matter how much more one asks for. Intense desire also often leads to unfulfilled expectations or unintended consequences as with Herbert’s unexpected death and rise from the grave as a living corpse. Put simply, Jacobs is reminding readers to be careful what they wish for because it may just come true.
Jacobs depicts the Whites’ home and domestic sphere in general as a safe, cozy place separate from the dangerous world outside. The Whites’ house is full of symbols of happy domesticity: a piano, knitting, a copper kettle, a chessboard, a fireplace, and a breakfast table. But the Whites repeatedly invite trouble into this cozy world. Sergeant-Major Morris—a family friend, seasoned veteran, and world traveler—disrupts the tranquility in the Whites’ home with his stories of India and magic and warnings of evil. He gives Mr. White the monkey’s paw, the ultimate token of the dangerous outside world. Mr. and Mrs. White mar the healthy atmosphere of their home again when they invite the Maw and Meggins representative inside, a man who shatters their happiness with news of Herbert’s death. The final would-be invader of the domestic world is Herbert himself. Mr. White’s terrified reaction to his dead son’s desire for entrance suggests not just his horror at the prospect of an animated corpse, but his understanding, won from experience, that any person coming from the outside should be treated as a dangerous threat to the sanctity of the home.
Jacobs’s story is structured around a pattern of threes. The central force of the story is the monkey’s paw, which will grant three separate owners three wishes each. The White family is made up of three people. Mr. White is the third owner of the paw. (The second owner is Sergeant-Major Morris; the first owner used his third wish for death.) Sergeant-Major Morris begins talking about his adventures in India after three glasses of whisky and urges Mr. White three times not to wish on the paw. The representative from Maw and Meggins approaches the Whites’ gate three times before he musters up the courage to walk up the path to their door. Mrs. White orders her husband three times to wish Herbert alive again before he retrieves the paw. And the reanimated corpse of Herbert knocks three times before his mother hears him. In addition to permeating the plot, the number three gives “The Monkey’s Paw” its structure. The story is broken up into three parts, which take place at three times of day, during three types of weather. Part I occurs in the evening during a rainstorm. Part II takes place during the morning of a bright winter day. Part III is set in the middle of a chilly, windy night.
By stressing threes, Jacobs taps into a number of associations that are common in Western culture. Most relevant to the story is the saying “bad luck comes in threes.” One well-known trinity, or three, is from Christian theology, in which God is composed of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Disregard for threes has been superstitiously equated with disregard for the trinity. In the case of Jacobs’s characters, faith in a non-Christian totem (the paw) may be interpreted as disrespect for Christianity. Finally, because twos commonly occur in nature (we have two legs, two eyes, two hands, and so on), threes are often used in literature to produce a perverse or unnatural effect.
The monkey’s paw is a symbol of desire and greed—everything that its owner could possibly wish for and the unrestricted ability to make it happen. This power makes the paw alluring, even to unselfish people who desire nothing and have everything they need. Mr. White, for example, hastily retrieves the paw from the fire, even though he himself admits that he wouldn’t know what to wish for if he owned the paw. Its potential also prompts Herbert to half-jokingly suggest wishing for money the Whites don’t really need, ostensibly just to see what happens. The paw grants Mr. White’s wishes by killing Herbert and raising his corpse from the grave in an unexpected and highly sinister twist. At the same time, however, the paw’s omnipotent power may be misperceived, because Herbert’s death may have been entirely coincidental and the knocks on the door may be from someone other than his living corpse.
Chess symbolizes life in “The Monkey’s Paw.” Those who play a daring, risky game of chess, for example, will lose, just as those who take unnecessary risks in life will die. When the story opens, Mr. White and Herbert play chess by the fire, and the game’s outcome mirrors the story’s outcome. Mr. White, the narrator explains, has a theory of “radical changes” concerning chess. He takes terrible, unnecessary risks with his king, risks that make his wife nervous as she watches the game unfold. As he plays, he notices that he has made a mistake that will prove deadly. The risks and mistakes Mr. White makes playing chess parallel the risks and mistakes he makes wishing on the monkey’s paw. These mistakes ultimately lead to Herbert’s death, the most “radical change” of all.