Groups of Three

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.