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.