Tuesday, January 25, 2011
"The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs
I wanted to start the day out with a story by a new to me author. In my attempt to edify myself regarding short stories I have looked a lot of "best short stories" lists. I have seen "The Monkey's Paw" by W. W. Jacobs on several lists. Being completely unfamiliar with this author, I did some quick pre-read research. William Wymark Jacobs (1863 to 1943-London) was in his day a famous writer of short stories for the popular magazine market. He also wrote stage adoptions for a number of his short stories. His father worked the docks in London's East Side. Jacobs worked for a few years as a clerk in the Postal Savings Bank but was basically a professional writer.
Jacobs subject matter was largely the people of London's East Side. It was an area of immigrants, sailors on shore leave, brothels (Hogarth's drawings of the streets of London were inspired by the East Side), poverty, crime and danger. To comfortable people who composed the book buying pubic in 1902 The East Side had an exotic let's go slumming kind of feel. Imagine the scene in the movie, My Fair Lady where Professor Henry Higgins first meets Eliza Dolittle and I think we have an idea of the East Side in popular culture.
"The Monkey's Paw" is very well written. As the story opens Mr and Mrs White are conversing with an old friend of the family, Sergeant Morris, recently returned from long service in the British Army in London. The Whites live with their adult son who is at work at his factory job. The Sergeant gives them a dried monkey's paw which he says an Indian holy man has given the power to grant three wishes. As he leaves he advises them to be very careful in using it as the last wish of the prior person to use the monkey's paw was for his own death. (The Sergeant never used it.)
Of course the Whites cannot resist using it. They debate what to do and the wife prevails with her suggestion that they ask for 200 Pounds (my quick research says this is about a year's pay for a factory worker in the U. K. in 1900-please correct me if I am way off on this). Of course we think there will be a terrible prize to be paid for the granting of the wish and we are right. I will tell a bit more of the plot than I normally do so you can get the flavor of the story. There is a knock on the door. It is a man in a suit dressed way above the standards of the East Side neighborhood the White reside in. The man is a representative of the factory where their son works. He has terrible news. Their son was caught in machinery at work and killed. The factory disavows all responsibility but gives the Whites 200 pounds to compensate them for the death of their son. Jacobs does a great job of showing us how the death of the son, their only child who survived to adulthood, affects the Whites and their marriage.
There are two wishes left and I do not want to tell more of the plot than I have. "The Monkey's Paw" is a very entertaining short story and I am glad I took the time to read it. I think it could be taught to students 12 and above.
It can be read online here