The cautionary tale is one we’ve all heard. A mysterious stranger comes from an exotic land and brings a talisman that tempts the protagonist. The stranger warns the protagonist not to use the talisman, but the protagonist does. Doom ensues. The protagonist’s purported greed is punished.
In previous posts, I’ve noted that many horror short stories start the same way. “The Monkey’s Paw” is no exception. The story opens: “Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnam Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly.” Mr. White and his son, Herbert, are playing chess with Mrs. White looking on when Sergeant Major-Morris knocks on the door. The family invites Major-Morris – who clutches a shriveled monkey’s paw – inside, and he tells them tales of his journeys. He laments the misery the paw has brought to his life, and to the life of a friend’s. He strongly cautions the Whites not to use the paw, but leaves it with them, nonetheless, and teaches them how to use it to make wishes.
Suffice it to say, Mr. White makes a wish when Major-Morris leaves, and the wishes bring great calamity on the family. Before he makes his first wish, Mr. White notes that he could not possibly want any more out of life, but he goes on to wish for 200 pounds. The obvious moral that most people draw from the story is one relating to greed: If you have everything you want in life, there’s no reason to wish for things you don’t reasonably need. If you do, your greed will be punished.
When I view “The Monkey’s Paw” as a cautionary tale, I think this interpretation works, but I also think it’s simplistic. After all, Aladdin made three wishes when he found a magic lamp. Is it greed, or mere human nature, to desire things? Who in the Whites’ position wouldn’t have wished for something, if only just for fun? Which raises the question: What would have happened if the wishes hadn’t been selfish? The Monkey’s Paw finds a sinister way to help the family make 200 pounds. Would the Monkey’s Paw have operated in a similarly sinister manner if the wisher asked for world peace, or does the paw only punish selfish wishes? Could the monkey’s paw, in the right hands, be an agent for the greater good?
Doubtful. I see the force behind the Monkey’s Paw as a sinister force that manipulates peoples’ desires to bring them harm and catastrophe. And I see Sergeant Major-Morris as a similarly insidious character for presenting the paw to the family, knowing what he did about it. Major-Morris knew that the family would be fascinated by a talisman from a far-away land and would be unable to resist making a wish. Major-Morris sets the family up for their demise.
But what about the chess game at the beginning of the story? It does seem possible that “The Monkey’s Paw” condemns people who seek to gain all the loot they can take from life. After all, chess is all about strategizing against opposing forces to take what is theirs. In a sense, then, the use of the Monkey’s Paw causes the wisher to play chess with the universe, to try to gain something from the universe that he or she does not already have. But the universe strategizes back and takes something more significant from the wisher. The universe – or, the sinister force behind the Monkey’s Paw – always wins.
Ignoring warnings is a common motif in literature and film, especially in horror. I’ve noted before, in another post, that Icarus ignored the warning of his father, Daedalus, and flew too close to the sun in Greek mythology. The sun melted his wax wings and he fell to his ultimate end. He was a victim of his own hubris. You’ve probably heard the story. Victor Frankenstein mirrors Icarus. He takes God’s job – controlling life and death – into his own hands, and ignores warnings by creating the man-beast who ultimately becomes Frankenstein’s monster. And in Pet Sematary, Louis Creed ignores the warnings of Jud Crandall and the ghost of Victor Pascow by burying his son, Gage, and then his wife, Rachel, in the Pet Sematary, so they will rise from the dead. Like the Whites, like Victor Frankenstein, Louis hubristically ignores warnings and takes life and fate into his own hands. The result is disastrous for Louis, as it is for Victor, as it is for the Whites.
The Monkey’s Paw seems like an exercise in fatalism and a testament to human beings’ remarkably small agency in the scope of the universe. The three fates in Greek Mythology spin our thread, and like Laos and Jocasta, parents of Oedipus – who learn that their son will kill Laos and marry Jocasta, and thus try to leave their son in the wilderness for dead – we can try to change our fate, but there’s a degree of futility in trying to win against the universe’s mandates. The gods, the Universe, the powers that be, they always win. Oedipus does marry Jocasta, does kill Laos, and then gouges out his eyes in grief, a symbol that he was blind to reality all along.
On the other hand, “The Monkey’s Paw” leans heavily on notions of “the exotic.” The monkey’s paw is an exotic talisman from a far-away land—India. In “The Natives will Eat You” I write about the otherization of different cultures in horror texts. Otherization in “The Monkey’s Paw” works similarly. The story relies on our inaccurate knowledge of, and fear of, a distant place with beliefs we don’t understand to ignite our fright. That strange land, India, must be full of macabre objects and evil spells, since the monkey’s paw proves ultimately homicidal. The monkey’s paw would seem less insidious if Major-Morris bought it from a street vendor on the corner for New York City.
But does the Monkey’s Paw really prove to be homicidal? One of the most significant debates surrounding the story is whether everything that happens are coincidences, unconnected with the monkey’s paw, or if the monkey’s paw promulgates evil forces in the universe through other peoples’ greedy wishes. After all, we never see who knocks on the door at the end of the story. We know only that the Whites are terrified. Part of this debate – the inability to be certain whether or not the paw has the efficacy we think it does – is what makes this story a classic. So give it a read. What do you think?
Do you think human beings have control over fate? What other stories do you know that wrestle with this concept? How are people and literary characters affected by hubris?