The Monkey's Paw – Keys from the Dungeon

Oct 11 2010

A pair of keys hung, dripping with dew. A shaft of blue light shined against the stone walls.

I re-read a short story from English class in grade 8. My English teacher did not explain the meaning of the story. She simply saw it flat. The plot was a linear sequence of events, and the moral of the story was simply not to interfere with fate. That was the moral of Macbeth, as taught in the class room. But if this was the moral, then why would the author write the story at all, let alone perform it?

Like any story with multiple layers of meaning, the key to decoding it is given at the beginning.

“I’m listening,” said the latter, grimly surveying the board as he stretched out his hand. “Check.”

The son, in fact, is one with the paw, life. There are only two characters in the story, the old couple, who are two sides of one psyche. The sergeant represents the force of change. The son plays the same role as the paw, that of equilibrium. There is no gain without loss. Listening to the winds of change, holding out his hand, symbolizing the paw in control of the game, and the checkmate cannot be mere coincidences. The entire story is about the endgame, the checkmate.

In another instance, the son predicts the sequence of events before he leaves.

“Well, don’t break into the money before I come back,” said Herbert, as he rose from the table.

In a metaphorical sense, when the son came back at the end of the story, the old couple still made no use of the money.

The father holds his right hand to the paw each time he makes a wish. It is unsurprising that each wish and its consequence can be found in advance.

“I should hardly think that he’d come tonight,” said his father, with his hand poised over the board.

The father was unable to make a move. It was checkmate. The son did return, unexpectedly.

“Hark at the wind,” said Mr. White, who, having seen a fatal mistake after it was too late, was amiably desirous of preventing his son from seeing it.

This time, the father realizes the mistake towards the end of the story and wants to prevent his wife from seeing it.

The second key to the story lies in the plot. A wish for gold (represented in this story as two hundred pounds, to be free from the burdens of life), results in the death of the dynamic part of life. This is further confirmed by the result of the two other wishes, which made no effect. As a last nail on this issue, the paw itself became ineffective at the end of the story. So the winds of change brought by the sergeant died with the sudden appearance of gold. From that moment on, things were incapable of changing for the old couple. Life would wear on, day after day.

The second wish, for the dynamic part of life to return, calls for the negative side, or dark side of life. This is the path taken by Darth Vader. Prospero, in the Merchant of Venice (aka Her Majesty’s Magician in real life), contacts angels to find something he lost in life. He gives up on the quest for gold, represented by alchemy.

The third wish, the whisper, is a secret. Star Wars, it does not happen until the last moments, when the father takes off his helmet. The old couple waited for it to happen until they forgot about the wish. That’s how long it takes in real life. Prospero returns to England after his adventure and gives up on his pursuit. There is something extraordinary about this wish compared to the other ones. For one, it does not obey the natural laws (of money or walking speed). This one alone did not have any side effects.

At the end of the story, the road is shone.

The streetlamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road.

It is the same road that was there at the start of the story.

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