The Monkey’s Paw

The Monkey’s Paw has a classic mythical structure to it, with three wishes and an ill-considered tampering with fate, leading to a sort of punishment from the gods themselves. “The Monkey’s Paw” will appeal to a modern audience because the lessons in it seem so relatable: who hasn’t “wished” for something only to discover that it’s not at all what they really wanted?

The Monkey’s Paw and the dangers of shortcuts

This classic piece of literature is certainly not as old as the Greek myths we’ve already considered, but it nevertheless contains a theme of warning that wouldn’t have been alien to the ancient Greeks. This short story, written by W. W. Jacobs in 1902, has widely been interpreted as a warning against using supernatural means to interfere with the wise hands of fate. There are actually several stories in more modern folklore that tackle the same themes, and the moral of them all seems to be encapsulated in the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”

The story, very briefly, goes like this.

Mr. White and his son Herbert are playing chess one night when Sergeant-Major Morris comes to visit them. He stays for dinner and afterwards shows them a fascinating artifact he found while serving in the British army in India: a mummified monkey’s paw. Morris explains that an Indian fakir had placed a magical spell on the paw so that it would grant the owner three wishes.

He also explains that the paw has brought him nothing but grief, and with that throws it into the fire. Morris warns Mr. White that using the three wishes only brings dire consequences, but Mr. White, intrigued and not heeding the warning, quickly retrieves the paw. Mr. White later decides to wish for the remaining amount left on his mortgage (the equivalent of around $30,000).

The next morning, Herbert the son goes to work and is tragically killed in a machinery accident. The company denies responsibility but makes a payment to the family—a payment of roughly $30,000. The wish has come true, but in the most hideous form. Mrs. White, overcome with grief, demands that Mr. White use another wish to bring their son back (can you see where this is going?). He does so, and an hour later there is a knock at the door, and Mr. White immediately understands that the monster at the door is not really his son at all. He quickly makes the third wish, the knocking outside stops, Mrs. White opens it to find nobody there, and screams out in anguish.

Despite its horror elements, the story has a classic mythical structure to it, with three wishes and an ill-considered tampering with fate, leading to a sort of punishment from the gods themselves. “The Monkey’s Paw” will appeal to a modern audience because the lessons in it seem so relatable: who hasn’t “wished” for something only to discover that it’s not at all what they really wanted?

Let’s dig deeper to unravel the useful life lessons within this story. It is, like our previous two tales, a story of transgression and punishment. But what is the nature of Mr. White’s crime? He is shown the monkey’s paw and told repeatedly that it is dangerous and will result in dire consequences, but ignores these warnings entirely.

Why? It’s easy to imagine a few reasons: he is greedy and gets carried away with the endless possibilities, or he is desperate and sees in the paw a way out of his life troubles. Perhaps his failure to take Morris’s warnings seriously shows a simple foolishness on his part—why heed any caution when the prospect of getting everything you want is so close at hand?

Whatever it is, Mr. White ignores the warnings and at his own peril. His first wish is for something some might think trivial, given the seemingly unlimited magical power of the paw. He wishes for money, but doesn’t say how this money will come into being. The horrifying consequence (his son dying in effect to produce this money) seems to be a kind of cosmic lesson in cause and effect—there is “no such thing as a free lunch” and if money were to really magically appear, it would need to come from somewhere.

The menace we see from the monkey’s paw seems to be a stern lesson: life is as it is for a reason, and if you interfere without understanding what you’re doing, you only bring calamity on yourself.

The theme repeats until the wishes are finished. Arguably Mrs. White’s wish is less selfish than her husband’s, but she makes the fatal mistake of not learning from his mistake. Rather than destroying the paw there and then, they dig themselves further into the hole by making more wishes—and in the end the only way to get out of the trouble is use the wishes completely and be worse off than they started.

The characters in this story are not bad people, but they lack foresight or a greater vision. It’s as though, ignorant of the complex webs of life behind their current situation, they wish for something that is unrealistic, undeserved, almost unnatural. Most of us have likely had thoughts of this kind: we wish we could win the lottery, or magically wake up one morning with the body of our dreams and ten years younger, or get a lucky break and become famous overnight. But all these wishes are the antithesis of carefully considered, mature goals that are worked out in the real world while obeying natural laws.

The warning against messing with fate is a profound one—it tells us that we don’t always understand why things are as they are, and so cannot always get what we want. In our limited human perspective, it’s unwise to pout and wish for reality to be something else, especially when we have no real understanding of the mechanisms underlying this reality. We are not meant to “play god” and toy with the universe of which we are only a part.

A popular Buddhist fable has the same lesson: a farmer one day loses his only horse, and his neighbor says, “How unfortunate for you!” but the farmer only replies, “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.” Later, the horse comes back, and following it is another, better horse. The neighbor now says, “How fortunate for you!” and again the farmer replies, “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.” Later, the farmer’s son is injured trying to train this new horse, and the neighbor again chips in, saying how unlucky the farmer is.

The farmer only says, again, “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see.” Some time later war is declared and every young man drafted to serve. However the farmer’s son, being injured, is exempt and can stay home, surely saving his life. Again the neighbor congratulates the farmer and says how lucky he is, and the farmer, in his wisdom, only smiles and says, “Maybe, maybe not. We’ll see…”

The moral of this story is obvious: in our limited perspective, we are never truly in the position to say whether events or circumstances are fortunate or unfortunate, good or bad. Some calamities later turn out to be blessings in disguise, and some gifts are later understood as curses. Many people say that their most painful life challenges taught them the most about life, and many people discover, with a little time and wisdom, that what they thought they wanted brought them no happiness at all.

It’s this strictly human limitation on perspective that makes us so ill-equipped to decide “fate” is wrong and that we know better. Just as a child who is given the power to decide what to have for dinner might foolishly decide on four bowls of ice cream and be sick, we can’t always know the best course for life to take, in the grand scheme of things.

How do we take the lessons from the monkey’s paw and put them into practice in real life, though? None of us, thankfully, will have access to a magical yet cursed item that gives us whatever our heart desires. At the end of such stories, the characters have learnt their lesson: there is a heavy load of regret, and the feeling now that they should have left things just as they were.

In our own lives, it’s important to be realistic and as mature as possible when it comes to deciding our grand dreams and wishes for ourselves. Again, this takes a degree of restraint and self-discipline. On a wild whim we might decide that what we really want is to go and live off-grid in the forest somewhere, only to go and find ourselves dangerously unprepared and with all our illusions of that way of life completely shattered. On the other hand, many of us will look at a challenge or failure in our lives and rail against it, calling it a mistake or a punishment that we don’t deserve.

But is it really?

The monkey’s paw tale reminds us that human beings have limitations, and that it’s always better to stick to your realm of control rather than overreach into the supernatural—or in more practical terms, the overly ambitious, unethical or unrealistic. What is our appropriate realm of control? Well, we can always make goals and plans to the best of our knowledge, work hard and honestly to achieve those, and adapt as we go along and learn more. We can have the wisdom and maturity to look at the events in our life and withhold judgment, like the Buddhist farmer; maybe it’s a blessing, maybe not. Who’s to say? Like Mr. and Mrs. White, when they play God without knowing what they’re doing, the results are monstrous.

On a basic level, it’s always prudent to hold off on interfering with things you don’t understand—especially those that come with explicit warnings. An obvious example is a student who takes an illicit drug to help him cram before an exam, without any care of the inevitable side effects coming his way. Rather than approaching the problem in the “normal” way—studying and doing his best—he tries to cheat and uses a tool he doesn’t understand or respect, and suffers the consequences.

We can see echoes of this moral in stories of people being bitterly disappointed to find that the proverbial grass is not in fact greener on the other side, and that there is no way to magically find a shortcut through life. The classic stories of making a “deal” with the devil are a similar warning—we are lured by the promise of money or fame or luxury, and in our blindness and ignorance we barge ahead, not reading the “fine print”—i.e. that we have sold our souls to get what we wanted. In myths and stories, the person cutting a supernatural deal is always burnt in the end, sometimes on a “technicality” like in the monkey’s paw, or sometimes because what the person thought they wanted is soon discovered to be awful (like King Midas, who quickly realizes what a stupid idea it is to turn everything you touch to gold!).

In our own lives, we can become adept at using self-discipline and restraint when we develop goals and dreams. Can we routinely ask what it is we think we want, and be honest about why? Are we acting because we hope to find some kind of cheat code to the game of life? Are we letting ourselves be deceived by something that promises us our wildest dreams without stopping to understand exactly what that means? This could apply to pyramid schemes and poor investments, or to being suspicious of romantic or business partners who promise the world, or to gurus or coaches who claim you can have whatever you want with no effort.

Self-discipline is having the presence of mind to think carefully before your own greed or desire runs away with you. Just like in the Daedalus and Icarus story, the best path is seldom the flashiest one, but more often goes along with ordinary, consistent hard work and an unfailing eye on the goal, despite temptations or flashy promises that end up being worse for you in the long run. It’s a lesson in good sense.

“The Monkey’s Paw” is on some level just a fun spooky tale, but on another level it’s a very deep warning to let go of a foolish desire to boss the universe around. Instead, it’s better to cultivate a mature acceptance of life and its hardships, especially those we don’t like or understand. Suffering is inevitable, and trying to avoid it never works, or even leads to more suffering. Actions undertaken without any proper understanding of what you’re doing can’t be expected to work, and at worst can be dangerous.

Rather than foolishly wishing for things to be different, take a wiser, broader view, and resist the urge to decide prematurely what’s best. On the most practical level, a wonderful lesson is simply to be patient: sometimes, things resolve themselves merely by you waiting without acting. What was a problem reveals itself in time to be an integral part of a bigger process. Wisdom and self-discipline teach us that interfering in these bigger processes can only lead to trouble.