Desire and Anxiety in the Victorian Ghost Story
Part 5: Fear of the Oriental ‘Other’ in The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs

The emergence of ghost stories during the Victorian era mirrors the emergence of fast-paced social developments in transportation, communication and sexual liberation, and could consequently be read as a means to channel social anxieties. Themes of masculinity, anxiety and change are repetitively acknowledged within the genre.

Death in three wishes

“Everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” – Sigmund Freud

The short story involves Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son, Herbert. Sergeant-Major Morris, a friend who served with the British Army in India, introduces them to a mummified monkey’s paw. An old fakir placed a spell on the paw, that it would grant three wishes to three separate men. The wishes are granted but always with hellish consequences, as punishment for tampering with fate.

Mr White makes a wish on the monkey’s paw – an uncanny reflection of the fragmented human body – which leads to his son’s demise. Mr White’s wish for £200 results in Herbert’s fatal accident at work, for which the company provide £200 worth of compensation. At first glance, the story seems like one of a wish-gone-wrong, an Eastern fairytale designed to provoke caution. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that Herbert unconsciously desires his own death. Despite having been warned of the paw’s uncanny abilities and tragic consequences, Herbert continues to instigate the wish which leads to his death – ‘well, wish for two hundred pounds, then; that’ll just do it.’

The sergeant-major tragically predicts the horrifying events of the story – ‘I don’t know what the first two [wishes] were, but the third was for death.’ Having heard this warning, the men persevere in their wish-making, another suggestion that Herbert is overrun by the Freudian death drive, anxious to return to a state of inanimacy.

On arousing feelings of the uncanny, Jentsch sights as an example ‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.’ If a major aspect of the uncanny is the blurring of lines between animate and inanimate, the monkey’s paw is certainly an uncanny object:

‘‘It moved,’ he cried, with a glance of disgust at the object as it lay on the floor. ‘As I wished, it twisted in my hand like a snake.’’

The paw, which, anatomically, should essentially be described as a hand, seems to possess a life of its own. The family are left uncertain as to whether the paw is living or dead, just as later they are left in the same state of anxiety regarding their son, who the couple wish to revive, leading to a knock on the door.

As Mrs White struggles desperately with desire for her undead son, Mr White fears what will be on the other side of the door. His wish to shut the undead son out, to ignore and repress his original inadvertent wish for his death, exposes the guilt and anxiety triggered by his responsibility in the events. As always, the threshold of the house plays a significant role in the protection of those within – “For God’s sake don’t let it in,’ cried the old man, trembling.’ Herbert’s father is anxious to keep the uncanny thing outside at bay. He makes one, final wish and the body disappears. (Here we recall the Sergeant-Major’s words, ‘I don’t know what the first two [wishes] were, but the third was for death.’)

The Oriental ‘Other’

The otherness of the ghostly influences in ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ is directly related to the orient and fear over the rise of the repressed. The characters, whose family name is ‘White,’ feel they have been attacked by the East following the uncanny token, which was cursed by a fakir and acquired in India. According to Freud, ‘everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.’ The Sergeant-Major is an intruder in the family home, a not-entirely-welcome guest – (‘‘I should hardly think he’d come tonight,’’) bringing with him the secret and hidden powers of the orient with its dire consequences…

Pick up your copy of The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories to read the full collection of stories discussed in this blog, or listen to The Monkey’s Paw below.