Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween 2012--W. W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw"

Happy Halloween to all you folks who celebrate this holiday.  It is one of my favorite holidays because it gives participants the opportunity, even if only for one evening, to live in a world of their imagination rather than everyday reality—the fulfillment of a basic human desire that the short story as a form has always been most effective in embodying—both because such a experience must be, by its very nature, a moment out of time, and because such a moment requires ritualistic precision to evoke.

Reality in the short story is always seen to be fictional, in the ambiguous double sense of that word.  Phenomenal reality, from such a perspective, is a fictional construct that novelists more often than not take as the only real.  However, true reality for the short-story writer can only be perceived in those revelatory moments when fictional reality as fictional reality is perceived.  For the short-story writer, hallucinatory reality is true reality, just as for primitive man, sacred reality is the only reality; profane, or everyday, reality is just an illusion that makes ordinary experience possible.  

Algernon Blackwood once said that his primary concern was stories of extended consciousness. "My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty,” In a preface to a collection of his tales, Blackwood noted that such was beginning to be revealed in the work of Eddington, Jeans, and Whitehead, who have built on the new physics which has wiped matter out of existence and perceives atoms as charges of electricity which may themselves be symbols of something spiritual or mental and as yet unknown. "The Universe, thus, seems to be an appearance merely, our old friend Maya or Illusion, of the Hindus."    

            Many nineteenth-century stories in America, England, German, and France, from Poe to Maupassant to Hoffmann to M.R. James reflected this view of reality. To celebrate Halloween 2012, I have chosen to discuss a relatively modest “horror” story of the turn of the century, W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw.” Published in l902, it is the only frequently reprinted story of this prolific short story writer of the Edwardian period, who critic Walter Allen calls "an exquisite minor artist.”  If you have never read it, you can find it online and might want to give yourself a little “trick or treat” thrill before you read my analysis of its short story characteristics. You can find it here:

            Plot is everything in "The Monkey's Paw," with character developed only enough to sketch the "prosaic wholesomeness" of the family and the romantic mystery of the soldier as a "visitor from distant parts," a teller of fanciful stories and the transmitter of the magical object.  In effect, the soldier is one who brings the magic of fairy tale and the Arabian Nights into the midst of "prosaic wholesomeness."  The story itself is a carefully elaborated game played by the strict rules which often govern folk tales and fairy tales, a process suggested in the very beginning by the chess game the father and son are engaged in.

            The story is based on the convention of the granting of three wishes, in which, as usual in such stories, the means by which the wishes are granted is tightly controlled by the language of the wish itself.  H. G. Wells makes this device more emphatic in "The Man who Could Work Miracles."  Focus on the end of the wish without due care taken to the means by which it is expressed can prove disastrous.  The stated thematic motif here is that an Indian fakir put a spell on the monkey's paw, granting three wishes to one who holds it in order to prove that fate rules people's lives and that people interfere with fate to their peril.
In this three-part story, the tone of Part I is one of domestic self-containment, even after the departure of the soldier, for the son suggests that if his monkey paw is no more truthful than the rest of his adventures, "then we shan't make much out of it."  The son's good-humored mocking of the paw, making it equivalent to fictional stories of the soldier, continues with the suggestion that the father wish for two hundred pounds to pay off their house after which the son sits down at the piano with a mock solemn face, "marred by a wink at his mother," and plays a fanfare for the wish.  Even when the paw seems to twist in his hand, this is attributed to the fancy of the father; and Herbert, well aware of the conventions of such story motifs, says again mockingly that they will find the money tied up in a big bag in the middle of the bed with "something horrible squatting up on top of the wardrobe watching you as you pocket your ill-gotten gains."

            The tragic fulfillment of the wish the next day, when the company that the son works for reports he has been killed and that the parents will receive two hundred pounds as recompense, emphasizes two internal moral motivations for the tragic event--that the father has wished for something even though he admits that he already has everything he wants, and that the one who was most ironic and disbelieving about the efficacy of the paw is the one who is destroyed.  

However, the real issue here revolves around the means by which the wish is granted--that rather than as supernatural manifestation, the money comes, as the soldier has said it would, "so naturally" that one might, if he wished to, attribute it to coincidence.  The fictional problem being laid bare here focuses on why events in a story occur as they do: by fate, by coincidence, or by characters interfering with fate. The question the story hangs on is why the son dies, particularly in the horrible way that he does, mangled in the machinery at his work.

The statement by the company representative that Herbert was "caught in the machinery" is, within the context of fate, meddling, and coincidence that the story is based on, ironic, for what makes the story work is that Herbert is caught in the machinery of the story itself.  Given the tradition of the kind of tale that Herbert has mocked, he, of course, must die. However, it is in the last section of the story that the kind of irony typical of the tradition of the well-made story is made clear.  The mother's desire to use the second wish to make the boy come alive again is both scorned by the father (who insists that the first event was coincidence) and feared by him, for he knows of the danger of the means by which the wish may be fulfilled.  His fear that the wish may be granted is matched by his wife's despair that it may not.  The reader's consequent suspicion that the revived son will return in his mutilated form establishes the necessary tension when someone knocks at the door.

            The story reaches its climax quickly when the mother tries to open the bolt on the door and the father scrambles for the paw to make one more wish before the "thing" gets in.  Immediately the knocking stops, the door is opened, the mother wails in disappointment, and the father runs out to find the street quiet and deserted.  The only evidence that anything more than a coincidence has occurred is the knocking at the door.  The machinery of the story, which has caught Herbert within it, now catches the reader.  The twist ending establishes a final irony that refers back to the opening chess game in its elaborate reversal: the father's final wish voids the second which was made necessary only by the first wish.  

Thus, the wishes are all as if they had never been with the exception of the death of the son--a death which the reader still cannot be sure was natural or supernatural.  However, regardless of what the tragedy is attributed to, the effect is that the world of the Arabian Nights, brought into the "prosaic wholesomeness" by the soldier, has transformed the prosaic into the purely imaginative.  The world of the Arabian Nights has become real within the story itself.

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