Wednesday 27 December 2017

W.W. Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw

Over a century of film adaptations and countless parodies, including no less than The Simpsons, have inured many to the truly chilling effects of W.W. Jacobs' short story The Monkey's Paw. Originally published in 1902 as part of the anthology The Lady of the Barge, this story of wishes gone awry is exceedingly short yet concentrated in its potency.

Behold the monkey's paw! Illustration by Maurice Gruffenhagen.

Though the majority of Jacobs' output was in humour, the text for which he is best known is The Monkey's Paw. In it, Sergeant-Major Morris, late returned from campaigning in India, is visiting his friends, the White family. In front of the roaring fire, he tells Mr. and Mrs. White, and their adult son Herbert, about the various goings on in far-flung regions of the British Empire. Eventually, the topic turns to the strange artifact Morris has brought back with him: a severed, shriveled up monkey's paw. 
"I'd like to go to India myself," said the old man, just to look around a bit, you know." 
"Better where you are," said the Sergeant-Major, shaking his head. He put down the empty glass and sighning softly, shook it again. 
"I should like to see those old temples and fakirs and jugglers," said the old man. "what was that that you started telling me the other day about a monkey's paw or something, Morris?" 
"Nothing." said the soldier hastily. "Leastways, nothing worth hearing." 
"Monkey's paw?" said Mrs. White curiously. 
"Well, it's just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps." said the Sergeant-Major off-handedly. 
His three listeners leaned forward eagerly. The visitor absent-mindedly put his empty glass to his lips and then set it down again. His host filled it for him again. 
"To look at," said the Sergeant-Major, fumbling in his pocket, "it's just an ordinary little paw, dried to a mummy." 
He took something out of his pocket and proffered it. Mrs. White drew back with a grimace, but her son, taking it, examined it curiously. 
"And what is there special about it?" inquired Mr. White as he took it from his son, and having examined it, placed it upon the table. 
"It had a spell put on it by an old Fakir," said the Sergeant-Major, "a very holy man. He wanted to show that fate ruled people's lives, and that those who interfered with it did so to their sorrow. He put a spell on it so that three separate men could each have three wishes from it." 
His manners were so impressive that his hearers were conscious that their light laughter had jarred somewhat. 
"Well, why don't you have three, sir?" said Herbert White cleverly. 
The soldier regarded him the way that middle age is wont to regard presumptuous youth."I have," he said quietly, and his blotchy face whitened. 
"And did you really have the three wishes granted?" asked Mrs. White. 
"I did," said the sergeant-major, and his glass tapped against his strong teeth. 
"And has anybody else wished?" persisted the old lady. 
"The first man had his three wishes. Yes," was the reply, "I don't know what the first two were, but the third was for death. That's how I got the paw." 
His tones were so grave that a hush fell upon the group. 
"If you've had your three wishes it's no good to you now then Morris," said the old man at last. "What do you keep it for?"
The Sergeant-Major gives a few more ominous words of warning and allusions to tragedies before trying to consign the paw to a fate of its own. His hosts cannot countenance the waste of such a good opportunity, however.
"If you could have another three wishes," said the old man, eyeing him keenly, "would you have them?" 
"I don't know," said the other. "I don't know." 
He took the paw, and dangling it between his front finger and thumb, suddenly threw it upon the fire. White, with a slight cry, stooped down and snatched it off. 
"Better let it burn," said the soldier solemnly. 
"If you don't want it, Morris," said the old man, "give it to me." 
"I won't," said his friend doggedly. "I threw it on the fire. If you keep it, don't blame me for what happens. Pitch it on the fire again, like a sensible man."
Insensibly, they decide to keep an use the paw. To test the thing out, they ask for a paltry sum of £200... Which the paw duly supplies the next day through a factory accident which claims the life of Herbert. Disclaiming any responsibility, the factory still offers £200 compensation, y'know, out of the goodness of their hearts.   

Wracked with guilt and grief, Mrs. White lights onto the idea of using the paw to bring Herbert back from the dead. By this time, however, Mr. White recognizes that the paw's wishes pay little heed to the intent of the wisher. Herbert, chewed apart by factory machinery and buried a week past, is in no state to be brought back to life.

Most readers fixate, not inaccurately, on Jacobs' message of tempting fate and demanding something without sacrifice to earn it. Wishing is easy, but everything has a price. To quote Jordan B. Peterson, psychology professor at the University of Toronto, "you makes sacrifices in the present so that the future is better." But this act of sacrifice isn't optional: children are full of potential, but an adult must sacrifice that potential for the actual, or else the punishment will be severe. Marriage is the sacrifice of all other potential romantic relationships for the actuality of a real, deep, and lasting one. Recognition of the inevitability and necessity of sacrifice is at the root of religion, from the tithe (storing up of goods to be used for the future or the returning to nature some of what was taken from it) to asceticism (giving up the pleasures of the flesh to pursue the higher orders of awareness) to Jesus (God sacrificing His Godness to die in the place of humanity, so that humanity has the potential to live with God beyond death). Future benefit requires sacrifice.

The monkey's paw represents the urge to have something for nothing... £200 out of thin air. But you can't have £200 out of thin air. It has to come from somewhere. So the paw offers up a human sacrifice. When something is seemingly gained for nothing - in this case, Herbert brought back to life - it has the potential to unleash a horror. Nothing begets nothing. 

It is also interesting to consider the source of the monkey's paw. Sergeant-Major Morris is an agent of British Imperialism, recently returned from the mysterious and mystical realms under British control. To those back home, places like India were seen as mere backwards, superstitious places that offer harmless novelty (as well as resources and markets). Mr. White sees it as a place of fakirs and jugglers and curious antiquities, a place to just have a look around, like a Sunday park. The Sergeant-Major, on the other hand, was a part of the machinery that keeps the British Empire moving. He knows intimately the sacrifices required to keep the flow of resources and capital going. In 1897-98 alone, the British fought a handful of expeditions in the regions of modern Pakistan, and doubtless a 21 year veteran like Sergeant-Major Morris was involved. He's described as regaling his hosts with stories of "strange scenes and doughty deeds, of wars and plagues and strange peoples." 

The Monkey's Paw is a short but terrifying story driving home more than the pithy axiom quoted in its opening: be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. Wishing is easy. Making those wishes come true takes sacrifice, whether or not you want it to, and whether  or not you're prepared for it.    

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