The Monkey's Paw
Folk Tale, Horror and Gothic Fiction, Tragedy
The Basic Folk Tale Formula
Let's talk sausages. And noses. And male anatomy. (Trust us, this will all become clear.) See, this is a story about three wishes with really bad consequences. There are quite a few old folk tales out there that feature three wishes (click here for a list). One of these is from One Thousand and One Nights (a.k.a. Arabian Nights), a very famous collection of stories from the Middle East and South Asia. Some of these stories are ancient. All of them are much older than "The Monkey's Paw," and translations of them reached England not long before "The Monkey's Paw" was written.
In the story in One Thousand and One Nights, a man is granted three wishes. His wife urges him to wish for a bigger, um, you know (the translation we read rather hysterically calls this bit the male anatomy a "prickle" and a "yard"). It's a disaster and his wife is horrified, so the man wishes it smaller, but then it totally disappears. His final wish is used to put things back the way they were before he ever made a wish.
Other folk tales feature this basic formula: two foolish wishes are made and the third wish is used to bring things back to the way they were. For some reason, most of the people in these stories use their first wish on, yep, sausages. Now for the really weird part: the second wish is usually used to attach the sausages to somebody's nose. Now, we like sausages as much as the next person, but this all seems very strange to us.
Jacobs' Creepy Spin on Three Wishes Folk Tales
W.W. Jacobs' gothic tragedy, though generally similar to the "three wishes" folk tales, has some key differences. First, he does away with the whole noses and sausages business (phew) and stays away from body parts in general (except for the paw, of course). This story becomes much scarier when the wishes seem to have the power to give and take away life.
In "The Monkey's Paw," Mr. White also fails to use his third wish to return things back to the way they were before the wishes. No, for this story to remain a tragedy, Herbert must stay dead and mangled. If he were magically restored to his pre-wishes self, this would be a silly story rather than a tragic and horrifying one.
Interestingly, America's master of horror, Stephen King, picks up where Jacobs leaves off. Jacobs toys with the idea of bringing a mangled person back to life, but then decides against making it happen. In Pet Sematary, King takes the idea and runs with it, bringing animals and people back to life with great enthusiasm. We love the way this story helps us trace the roots of today's Gothic and horror genres. For fun, compare Jacobs with another important figure in this genre, Edgar Allan Poe. What are some differences and similarities?