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Literature / The Monkey's Paw

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"The Monkey's Paw" is a short horror story written by English author W. W. Jacobs in 1902. An incredible number of stories in different media have played on it through different variations and adaptations, and it is a subject of frequent parody.

The story begins as Mr. and Mrs. White, an average couple with a grown son named Herbert, are visited by an old friend of theirs who had been a sergeant in India. While there, he acquired a magical talisman in the form of a mummified monkey's paw, said to grant three wishes to whoever possesses it...but every wish comes with hellish consequences.

Having no desire to keep the paw now that he's made his own wishes (and implicitly suffered greatly from them) the sergeant (very reluctantly) gives it to the Whites, after first warning them that the first owner's third wish was to die. Too excited by the paw's mystical powers, Mr. White first wishes for £200, and gets it — as a payout after Herbert is killed in a grisly workplace accident. The story continues in this way, with the Whites' wishes only coming to them at terrible cost, until — after the most dramatic moment — they've learned its lesson: don't tempt fate, and Be Careful What You Wish For.

The original story can be read here. An audio adaptation by the YouTube channel Chilling Tales for Dark Nights can be heard here.

By the end of the 20th century, the story's plot had become something of a Stock Parody trope, used whenever "Be Careful What You Wish For" was needed as a punchline. "The Monkey's Paw curls" is a standard reaction phrase these days meaning "Sure, you'll get what you wish, but something else much more horrible will happen because of it".

Tropes used by the short story:

  • An Aesop: The monkey's paw was charmed by an old fakir to teach people that fate rules people's lives and those who interfere will be punished.
  • Artifact of Doom: The monkey's paw.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: This is possibly the Trope Codifier for "three wishes gone wrong" stories.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Whites lose their only son, but at least the monkey's paw can't hurt anyone ever again, since it can only grant three wishes to three people and Mr. White was the third.
  • Came Back Wrong: Herbert dies in a horrible accident involving heavy machinery; his body is so mangled, Mr. White has to keep his mother from seeing him. We never see what he looks like after being resurrected, but his father suspects that his body is in the same mutilated condition that it was at burial.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Herbert dies by being "caught in machinery", and his body was so horribly mangled that he could only be identified by his clothing.
  • Curiosity Is a Crapshoot: The Whites just wanted to see how it worked by wishing for £200. It got Herbert killed.
  • Cursed Item: This horror story concerns a mummified monkey's paw said to grant three wishes, but using it leads to tragic outcomes for the owners.
  • Greed: Asking for more than your lot leads to bad things by the monkey's paw.
  • Hope Spot: After making his reluctant wish for Herbert to be alive again, Mr. White is relieved to see that it apparently didn't work. Then, he hears a knock at the door, having forgotten that the cemetery was two miles away from the house.
  • Jackass Genie: In the cruelest way. They wish for £200 for a mortgage payment. Their son is killed in a horrifying accident, and they get the money as compensation for his death. They then wish for the son to be brought back to life, and he presumably is, but the implication is that he's still as horrifically mangled as he was when he died. The third wish, whatever it was, leaves his wife grieving even more bitterly after the Hope Spot that her son would be waiting for her at the front door.
  • Literal Genie: The monkey's paw gives you exactly what you wish for. It also gives you something you didn't.
  • Make a Wish: "Wish our boy alive again."
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: According to the sergeant, this is how the wishes normally go. Only Mr. White can tell that the paw "twisted like a snake" when he wished with it, and it's never proven that the knocking was Herbert. Definitely leaning to the side of "magic," though.
  • Never Say "Die": The man who comes to bring the Whites the news of Herbert's death says that their son, while badly hurt in the machines, is "not in any pain." It takes a moment for them to realize what he means.
  • Nothing Is Scarier:
    • The sergeant doesn't know what the first two wishes of the first man to own the paw were, but the third was for death, which is how he came to own it himself. We also never learn what his wishes (and their consequences) were either.
    • The fact that Herbert is only described as having been "caught in the machinery" and Mr. White was only able to identify him "by his clothes" are also an example, leaving the exact nature of Herbert's death up to the reader.
    • We never see exactly what it is that's knocking on the front door. Because Mr. White knows that Herbert's body is horribly mutilated, he uses his last wish before his wife can open it, and when she finally does, nothing is there.
  • Ominous Knocking: The Trope Codifier; the story climaxes with knocking on a house's front door by what is implied to be a horribly disfigured Revenant Zombie.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: It is strongly implied that Herbert's corpse, still horribly mangled from his injuries, is reanimated by the second wish. Notice that whatever comes to their door cannot speak or call to them, merely knock.
  • Rule of Three: The monkey's paw has the power to grant three different people three wishes each.
  • Schmuck Bait: The sergeant explicitly warns the Whites about what may happen. They wish anyway.
  • Space Whale Aesop: Don't wish for any more money than you already have, because an evil artifact might intentionally misinterpret it to bring tragedy upon your family.
  • Stock Shout-Outs: The story has been parodied or referenced so much that there's even a Wikipedia page for listing those occurrences as well as adaptations.
  • Tempting Fate: By wishing with the paw, fate grants you your wish, but gets you back in some way, no matter how well you think you've shut out the possibilities.
  • Three Wishes: Given to each of three people, and then the monkey's paw loses its magic.
  • The Unreveal: Several adaptations, including the original story, never say what exactly the final wish that Mr. White makes on the monkey paw is. It is assumed to be on the lines of "I wish for Herbert to be at peace" or "I wish that Herbert would be dead and in his grave once more." Two particular adaptations do reveal it: in one he says "I wish my son dead in the grave forever," while in another he says "I wish him dead and at peace."
  • You Can't Fight Fate: The entire point behind the creation of the paw was to teach that it's better to accept things as they are.