Literary Devices in The Monkey's Paw
Black Humor: Since W. W. Jacobs more often wrote humor rather than horror, “The Monkey’s Paw” contains some dark humor, making light of subject matter that is morbid or serious. The two most prominent examples occur in relation to the discussion of the power of the monkey’s paw. When Mrs. White jokingly suggests wishing for four pairs of hands for herself, Morris is alarmed, as he knows that she might literally sprout extra hands—a grotesque yet humorous image. Furthermore, some lines of character dialogue are ironically funny or foreboding in light of the story’s conclusion.
Omniscient Narrator: The narrative style of this story is more “fly on the wall”; that is, an all-knowing narrator simply reports action from afar. The narrator sticks mostly with Mr. White but occasionally jumps into other characters’ heads. Notably, readers never get an inside look into Morris to see if he’s telling the truth about the paw’s power, which helps preserve suspense and keeps the tale’s ending ambiguous and open to interpretation.
Literary Devices Examples in The Monkey's Paw:
"The last face was so horrible and so simian that he gazed at it in amazement...." See in text (I.)
The adjective “simian” means “monkey-like.” Herbert’s vision of a monkey’s face in the flames doesn’t bode well for him. It suggests that the paw’s power to grant wishes is real and that perhaps they should have listened to Morris’s warnings. However, there is also a rational explanation for Herbert’s visions: he’s up late and has been drinking, so he’s susceptible to seeing horrible things in the fire. Notice also how this is one of the few times the narrator sticks to Herbert’s thoughts rather than Mr. White’s.
""Well, I don't see the money," said his son as he picked it up and placed it on the table, "and I bet I never shall."..." See in text (I.)
Herbert’s flippant comment will turn out to be ironic: though he believes the money will never come, his words have another meaning, which is that he will literally not be able to see the money when it arrives. This serves as another example of Jacobs’s dark humor.
"A fine crash from the piano greeted the words, interrupted by a shuddering cry from the old man. His wife and son ran toward him...." See in text (I.)
These lines leave readers in suspense, wondering what caused the crash and if Mr. White is okay. In this way the tale’s suspense benefits from the distant narrative voice, allowing readers to make discoveries at the same time as the characters.
""Well, it's just a bit of what you might call magic, perhaps," said the sergeant-major, offhandedly...." See in text (I.)
This line is a little tongue-in-cheek. Morris’s “offhanded”—meaning “casual”—way of bringing up magic suggests that he not only has seen quite a lot of magic during his time in India but also that it’s now a mundane event to him. Though he tries to sound casual about the monkey’s paw, the Whites are intrigued by it after his admission that it’s magic. It could be argued that Morris deliberately piques the family’s interest, but readers have no insight into his motivations. The tone shifts, then, from wonder at the exotic to curiosity about the paw’s powers.
"of all the beastly, slushy, out-of-the-way places to live in..." See in text (I.)
Mr. White’s outburst shows both his dissatisfaction with his current situation and sets the stage for a desolate encounter with horror. Because of the family’s isolation, they are beyond easy reach of help in case of any emergencies—now a classic horror trope.
"Without, the night was cold and wet, but in the small parlour of Laburnam Villa the blinds were drawn and the fire burned brightly. ..." See in text (I.)
This opening sentence sets the tone for the first part of the story: although outside the night is dark and stormy, inside the family is warm and safe together. Protected from the elements, they are able to thrive, content with one another’s company.
"Even his wife's face seemed changed as he entered the room...." See in text (III.)
Recall how in the first section Herbert saw the fire morph into terrifying faces. The repetition of a formerly comforting image—a fire, a loving wife’s face—changing into something terrible contributes to the threatening tone bearing down on Mr. White.
"a house steeped in shadow and silence...." See in text (III.)
Like the previous two parts, the house’s atmosphere is described in the first sentence. With Herbert gone—the Whites’ only child and the source of much of their happiness—there is no joy left for them to come home to. This sets the tone for the rest of the section: unhappy and dark.