The Danger of Wishing

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.

Read about the similar theme of greed in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.

The Clash between Domesticity and the Outside World

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.

Read about the related theme of the fear of outsiders in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.