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Literature / The Monkey's Paw

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"The Monkey's Paw" is a 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, average people with a grown son named Herbert, are visited by an old friend of theirs who was a sergeant in India. While there, he got a magical talisman in the form of a mummified monkey's paw, said to grant three wishes to whoever possesses it.

Having no desire to keep the paw, he (reluctantly) gives it to the Whites, first warning them that its previous owners killed themselves for their third wish. Too excited by its mystical powers, Mr. White first wishes for £200. He gets his wish, but at a horrible price. The story continues this way until the most dramatic moment, and they learn their lesson: don't tempt fate, and Be Careful What You Wish For.


The full story can be found here. Audio adaptation by the Youtube channel Chilling Tales for Dark Nights here.

By the end of the 20th century, the titular Paw has become a bit of a Stock Parody, used when "Be Careful What You Wish For" is needed for a punchline.

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.
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  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Herbert dies by being "caught in machinery", and was so horribly mangled that he could only be identified by his clothes.
  • 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 it was two miles walk from the cemetery to the house.
  • Jackass Genie: In the cruelest way. They wish for £200 for a mortgage payment. Their son is killed in a horrifying machinery accident, and they get the money as compensation for his death.
  • 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.
  • 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. We also never learn what his wishes (and their consequences) were either.
    • The fact that Herbert is only described as "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.
    • The walking corpse knocks suspensefully over and over. Because Mr. White knows that Herbert's body is horribly mutilated, Mr. White uses his last wish to wish Herbert dead again. Nothing is there when they open the door.
  • 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's strongly implied that Herbert's corpse was reanimated, but still horribly mangled from his injuries.
  • Rule of Three: The monkey's paw can grant three wishes each to three different people.
  • Schmuck Bait: The sergeant explicitly warns them about what may happen. They wish anyway.
  • Space Whale Aesop: Be careful what you wish for because an evil artifact might intentionally misinterpret it to mean you want tragedy to befall your family.
  • 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: To 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 this lesson.


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