"Well, it's just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps," said the sergeant-major, offhandedly. (1.21)
Does Morris actually believe in magic, or is he just playing with the Whites?
"It had a spell put on it by an old fakir," said the sergeant-major,
"a very holy man. [...] He put a spell on it so that three separate men
could each have three wishes from it." (1.26)
Why would a holy man make something evil? To teach people a lesson? In some ways this passage can be seen as a reflection of misconceptions about India in the early 1900s, and the public's fascination with stories of magic and mysticism from afar.
The soldier shook his head. "Fancy, I suppose," he said, slowly. "I
did have some idea of selling it, but I don't think I will. It has
caused enough mischief already. Besides, people won't buy. They think
it's a fairy tale; some of them, and those who do think anything of it
want to try it first and pay me afterward." (1.36)
The paw is closely associated with money. Morris wants to sell it. Mr. White, it seems, does actually pay him for it. And Mr. White's first wish is for money. Still, it's hard to say this is a story warning against greed, since all Mr. White wants to do is pay off his debt. Why stop at 200 pounds, after all?
He took the paw, and dangling it between his forefinger 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 other, "give it to me." (1.41)
Mr. White claims he has everything he wants and doesn't need to wish for anything… but he wants the paw even more when he sees he's about to lose it. This suggests that beneath his happy exterior he is unsatisfied with some aspects of his life and isn't about to let a chance to change it go by. Does the paw itself compel him to wish on it, or is he denying the truth of his life?
He sat alone in the darkness, gazing at the dying fire, and seeing faces in it. The last face was so horrible and so simian [monkey-like] that he gazed at it in amazement. It got so vivid that, with a little uneasy laugh, he felt on the table for a glass containing a little water to throw over it. His hand grasped the monkey's paw, and with a little shiver he wiped his hand on his coat and went up to bed. (1.66)
This passage reveals that even practical Herbert is susceptible to belief in the supernatural. Is he just tired and a little tipsy, or does the monkey actually appear before him? Either way, this moment foreshadows the fact that Herbert will become the victim of the monkey's wrath – or of a terrible accident that is simply the result of unsafe working conditions.
But her husband was on his hands and knees groping wildly on the floor in search of the paw. If he could only find it before the thing outside got in. (3.48)
Mr. White definitely believes the paw has real powers at this point in the story. Do you? Would you be convinced without actually seeing undead Herbert with your own eyes?