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Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

The Monkey's Paw by Jessie McGee

           The Monkey’s Paw is a story written by William Wymark Jacobs in 1902. Jacob writes the story of Mr. and Mrs. White and their son Herbert. Mr. White and his family live in the London countryside hours away from the nearest town. One night a friend of Mr. White, Sergeant-Major Morris, comes by the house and shows the family a monkey paw. The Sergeant received the monkey’s paw while he was serving in India over the past twenty-one years. Sergeant-Major Morris tells the family that the paw had a spell placed on it by a fakir and the paw possesses the power to grant three wishes. He adds that along with the paws magic comes tragic consequences and then proceeds to throw the paw on the fire. Intrigued by the powers of the paw, Mr. White quickly retrieves it from the fire. The Sargent leaves and Herbert persuades his father to make a wish. Mr. White does not know what to wish for and exclaims that he has everything he could desire. Herbert suggests that his father wishes for £200 to pay off the mortgage. Mr. White believes it to be a reasonable wish so he does. Mr. White’s wish comes true at the demise of his son. The next evening a man comes to Mr. and Mrs. White’s home to tell him that his son was killed by a machine at work and although the company was not responsible for the accident the family was awarded £200. Days after this devastating news the mother comes up with the idea to wish on the monkey’s paw again for her son to come back from the dead. Later that night they hear a knock on the door. The mother, believing it to be Herbert, rushes to unlock the door to let her son in but the lock is too high. As she is reaching for the lock, Mr. White, worried about what terrible repercussions could come from this wish, grabs the monkey’s paw to make his final wish. As he makes his wish the knocking at the door suddenly stops. Mrs. White opens the door and no one is there just the sound of the cold wind blowing past their home (Jacobs).

​​​​​​​           This story is not just a representation of Jacobs's talent as a writer but is also an illustration of the social attitudes of the time. The story The Monkey’s Paw was published in 1902 at the end of the Victorian era. This era was marked by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign of the British Empire in 1901 and the beginning of the reign of King Edward the VII. The end of the Victorian Era would represent a time in history where attitudes were shifting on a global scale. This was a time for ingenuity, industrial revolution and social change. Aspects of the social change of the time involved racist attitudes towards India and South Asia. These attitudes are derived from three main concepts. The fear of the fall of the British Empire caused by the partition of India, racial supremacy and moral superiority and xenophobia. One historical event that assisted in the development of these British racist attitudes towards the people of India and South Asia was the Indian revolt of 1857 and the official partition of India in 1947. These racist thoughts and attitudes are perpetuated through the story of The Monkey’s Paw in a variety of texts throughout the 20th century.

​​​​​​​           One significant factor that assisted in establishing fear in British society was the Indian revolt of 1857. This historical event would represent the beginning of India gaining its independence as a country from the British Empire. According to Robinson, before the rebellion, India was part of the British East India Trading Company as far back as 1612 (Robinson, Fordham University). During this time the British assimilated to the Indian culture. Vazira Zamindar, associate professor at Brown University speaks to the idea of British colonial rule by stating 

“While ideas of deference marked British colonial rule from the very start, it is really after the Revolt of 1857 that racism, in particular, becomes the central marker of that difference. In the 18th century, many Europeans lived in India, wearing Indian dress, living in Indian habitats, speaking Indian languages, and marrying Indian wives.”

After the rebellion of India in 1857, a completely new attitude from the British Empire emerged. The British emphasized their ideas of difference that were already in place by implementing forms of segregation (Zamindar). It is this segregation that propelled the continuous racist attitudes of racial and moral superiority that lead to xenophobia throughout the 19th and into the 20th century. In an article published on January 3rd, 1890 of The Standard, a newspaper published out of London England, two men engaged in a physical altercation over the partition of India leading to the death of one of the men. This is only one piece of evidence to demonstrate how the British racist attitudes of the public were influenced by the political conflict regarding the partition of India. This case shows the severity of these attitudes and how they affected the public. 

​​​​​​​           In Jacob’s original text of The Monkey’s Paw, there is a lot of symbolism surrounding the fear of the fall of the British empire. The story was written in 1902 which was more than 50 years after the initial rebellion of India. During this time the social and political attitudes of the British were hostile and at odds. This is reflected in the text and used to build tension and fear for the British readers. The fear is caused by the negative repercussions after wishing upon the paw illustrating society's repression of curiosity of foreign lands. Jacobs uses the idea of Indian people and culture to imply that they threaten an “invasion of barbarism or demonism” (Da Silva 76). This idea is carried out through the symbolism of the paw. At the beginning of the story, Mr. White is curious about the paw. After being warned Mr. White, now in possession of the paw thinks about his first wish and states “It seems to me I’ve got all I want.” (Jacobs). This establishes the idea that British imperialism is superior, so why would someone go searching for something unknown. The paw is a symbol of the unknown Indian influences. Mr. White feeds into his curiosity by taking the suggestion of his son and wishing for £200 to pay off his mortgage. His curiosity turns out to be a tragic mistake as the repercussions of his actions lead to the death of his son. This is symbolic of the repression of curiosity about leaving British imperialism. By instilling this fear the story also enforces the British attitudes of racial and moral superiority. Making a wish and trusting the powers of the paw leads to consequences for Mr. White therefore making the paw, a symbol of Indian culture in the story, to be immoral. As well the conflicting attitudes of xenophobia in the story are contrasted by the sergeant’s fear of the unknown, foreign paw and Mr. White’s curiosity about the possible foreign magic that the paw has. 

​​​​​​​           Almost another 40 years after Jacob’s story was adapted in the 1948 Norman Lee film of the same title The Monkey’s Paw. In this adaptation, the antagonist is Mr. Trelawne and his family. The movie opens to a busy shop, Mr. Trelawne’s family lived in the city and has a successful general store. Mr. Trelawne is visited by a collector of oddities. The collector visits Mr. Trelawne to trade the paw for the painting. Mr. Trelawne is intrigued by the paw as he has some secret gambling debts he needs to pay off. Although this adaptation has a few changes, it still holds to the plot of Jacob’s story. Mr. Trelawne wishes on the paw and what follows is the same tragic consequence that Jacobs warns us of. This visual interpretation of The Monkey’s Paw illustrates the same racist attitudes towards the paw, as symbolized in Jacobs's original text. As well as displaying racism towards the people of South Asia and India, this film also shows a racist attitude towards the Irish. In the first two minutes of the film the owner of an oddities shop is talking to, or about a sculpture of an Asian man. The owner exclaims that a lot has changed since “his day” (the sculpture’s day). The owner goes on to discuss that civilization has developed since the era that the Asian sculpture would have been relevant. When the paw is revealed in the story the oddities owner describes the paw as a “monstrosity”. This is a direct example of the racism and racial superiority attitudes of the British. The owner is implying that the Asian civilization from which the sculpture is from is barbaric. This sets the racist tone for the rest of the film. Later, at the beginning of the film an Irish man, who appears to be under the influence provides some comic relief in the beginning. However, Mr. Trelawne makes it apparent that the man is inferior when he calls him a “blarney foreigner”. Blarney refers to the Blarney Stone in Ireland in which it is rumoured that if you kiss the Blarney Stone you will have the gift of gab. This insult is popular of the time as the Irish were depicted as violent and drunk. This racism is also due to the British imperialistic thought that they were entitled to rule over Ireland.   The fears of the fall of the British empire and the end of imperialism are set up in the same way Jacobs wrote about. At the beginning of the movie, the Irishman tells Mr. Trelawne that he has everything he could need and should be grateful. We find out that the shop owner himself is aware of his success when he can not decide on what to wish for and says to himself that he doesn't need anything and is doing okay. The beginning of this film is meant to set up that the external influences (the paw) that are introduced in the story are meant to cause fear and disrupt the peaceful British lifestyle. Proving British superiority ideals about the empire (The Monkey’s Paw 1948). 

​​​​​​​           The racist attitudes of the British empire would also be used comedically in the 1991 episode of The Simpsons. In this third TreeHouse of Horror Halloween special, the story of The Monkey’s Paw is used not just to illustrate tension in the story but rather to mock South Asian Influences. In this American adaptation, the Simpson’s family is finished trick-or-treating and having collected a large amount of candy Marge warns the children and Homer to not eat too much candy or they will have nightmares. The nightmare turns out not to be a dream about monsters or ghosts but rather racist attitudes against Arabic cultures. Lisa’s nightmare is that the family is transported to a street market in Marrakesh, a city in the kingdom of Morocco, which Homer immediately calls a “dump” (The Simpsons 1991). In this comical illustration of the city of Marrakesh, the culture is emphasized to be unrealistic and make the people look humorous wearing their traditional Arabic garb. This is an obvious attempt to show the racist xenophobia attitudes of a foreign land outside of America. In this case, the foreign racist attitude is toward anything different from the American culture. Bart then sees a Marrakech man doing yoga, which is exaggerated, illustrating the man to be tied up in knots. Bart then says “I could do that, but I don’t wanna”. This shows Bart’s racial and moral superiority. Explaining that he could do these other poses but doesn’t want to because it’s beneath him (when really he can’t do it), therefore saying that the Arabic culture is beneath him. W. W. Jacobs’s story of The Monkey’s Paw was a scary story meant to cause tension in the audience by using racist ideas of foreignism however, in this adaptation the racist attitudes are used to humour the audience with blatant racist stereotypes that have been developed throughout the 20th century (The Simpsons 1991).

​​​​​​​           From analyzing the story of The Monkey’s Paw in three very different texts we can infer that W. W. Jacobs intended to mirror the racist social attitudes of the time as a way to build tension in his story. In the original story of The Monkey’s Paw, Jacobs used the character, Mr. White, to illustrate the consequences of sterling away from British imperialism. The racist attitudes against India and South Asia come from centuries of the British empire repressing the curiosity of the public. What is important to note is that throughout the 20th century these attitudes did not change very much. The Norman Lee film The Monkey’s Paw and The Simpsons season three episode both perpetuate the racist symbolism that the monkey’s paw is a symbol of ‘othering’ Indian and South Asian culture. All of these texts demonstrate the consequences of exploring places outside of British Imperialism. The ideas of racial and moral superiority are illustrated through the negative and tragic consequences that the paw brings when someone makes a wish. Lastly, the most obvious examples of xenophobia are exhibited in all three texts in the form of the monkey’s paw as the main source of tension. The tension is not caused by the physical paw itself but by the negative repercussions from wishing on the paw. We do not know if Jacobs intended to use racism and xenophobia to build tension in the story or if his story is a product of society's fears of the time. What we do know is that racism, xenophobia and the fear of the fall of the British Empire are all consistently symbolized through the various versions of W.W. Jacobs The Monkey’s Paw. 
Works Cited

Groening, Matt, and Jim Reardon. The Simpsons. S03 EP07, 20th Century Fox Television, 1991.

Jacobs, W. W. The Monkey’s Paw.

James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History, 2 Vols. (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1904-1906), Vol. II: From the opening of the Protestant Revolt to the Present Day, pp. 333-335.

“Partition of India.” India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs, vol. 55, no. 3–4, July 1999, pp. 61–72, doi:10.1177/097492849905500304.


The Monkey’s Paw. Directed by Norman Lee, Butcher’s Film Service, 1948.

“THE PROVINCES.” Standard, 3 Jan. 1890, p. 3. British Library Newspapers, Https:// Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.

Zamindar, Vazira. “How Did Racism Influence British Colonialism?” Choices Program, 7 Mar. 2012,

The Monkey's Paw by  Jessie McGee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 CC iconby iconnc iconnd icon

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