The other day, for no particular reason, I was thinking about “The Monkey’s Paw, a short story by British author W.W.Jacobs, first published in 1902. I had read this when I was in college, perhaps 60 years ago, but it seems so relevant to the human condition as it exists in today’s world. It tells the story of an elderly couple, the Whites, living in England with their grown son who works in a factory. Through a friend, Mr. White comes into possession of a shriveled up monkey’s paw that supposedly grants its possessor 3 wishes. The friend warns, however, that use of the monkey’s paw will likely end with disastrous results. Mr. White takes it home and shows his wife the object and relates the story behind it. But what shall we wish for asks Mrs. White since they are already leading a comfortable life in a reasonably comfortable residence. I know says Mr. White-we have one more mortgage payment of 200 pounds to make and then the house is ours.
So Mr. White grabs the monkey’s paw and wishes for 200 pounds. He can feel the paw suddenly move unnaturally in his hand. At first nothing happens and the couple believes that it’s all a big hoax. But later that afternoon, they spot an unfamiliar man coming up the walkway to their front door and ringing their doorbell. He identifies himself as a representative of the factory where their son works, and tells them that a tragic accident has occurred. It seems their son was butchered in a horrible machinery accident at the plant, and has died as a result of his wounds. He further informs them that, while the factory is under no legal obligation to make a monetary restitution, factory management does feel it has a moral duty to provide some modest benefits as a result of their son’s death. He then hands the Whites a check for 200 pounds.
The couple, and especially the wife, are totally grief stricken. The son’s funeral is held 3 days later, but the grieving goes on, unabated. About a week after the funeral, with the Whites still deep in mourning, it suddenly dawns on Mrs. White that perhaps the damage can be undone. We still have two more wishes on the monkey’s paw, she exclaims to her husband. Wish him back to life she insists. The husband is at first highly dubious and reluctant to do so. But he finally gives in to his wife’s insistence and makes that second wish. A short time later, he sees his son approaching the house, but totally mangled from the factory accident, and from lying 10 days in the grave. The doorbell rings and Mrs. White goes running gleefully to open the front door. Mr.White, in a panic, grabs the monkey’s paw and makes the third wish. The son is restored to his grave as the wife opens the door and to nothingness. Nothing but a cruel twist of fate. Sort of the way I feel about trying to tamper with the will of the universe. For example, I always felt that if I won a giant jackpot such as Powerball, the doctor would inform me the next day that I had an inoperable brain tumor.
Think this is just pessimistic fiction? Then consider the following. All statewide casinos in Nevada have slot machines called Megabucks. The jackpot starts at $10 million, and goes up from there depending on the amount of play and usage these machines get. The bet is $3 a pull if you’re aiming to win it all, and it could be years before the jackpot is hit. Most of the time the winning machines are in Las Vegas, but other locations can be winners too. One time the jackpot was won on a machine in the Reno airport. In any event, some years ago the jackpot had climbed to over $35 million, the highest it ever reached. As the dollar amount climbed, there was a frenzy of betting on these machines, and even great difficulty finding Megabucks slots that weren’t occupied. People were shoveling hundred dollar bills into these slot machines with the same abandon as if they were buying a pack of gum. Of course the $35 million is the amount paid out over 25 years. If you opted for the lump sum payment option, the amount one would receive (after taxes) would be a paltry $15 million or so. Not too shabby. Most of us could probably muddle thru life on that amount.
Finally a local Las Vegas woman won this giant jackpot at one of the Las Vegas casinos. Of course, there were great celebrations, photo-ops, news coverage, TV interviews, etc. as this woman, who had virtually no money, suddenly became a multi-millionaire. But here’s where the tempting fate part kicked in. About 3 weeks after winning this giant Megabucks jackpot, the woman and her sister sitting next to her were driving along the local streets and stopped at a traffic light when they were violently rear-ended by the car behind them. The driver causing the accident claimed that his brakes just gave out. The sister was killed immediately (probably because she wasn’t using her seat belt) and the jackpot winner had her spine broken. Her fate was to be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. All the millions she had won would now be used to pay for her upkeep as a paraplegic. I’m sure that given the choice, she would have rather been penniless, but with use of her legs and her sister alive.
During the 1980s, there used to be a TV commercial about a margarine that tasted so good that even Mother Nature was fooled into thinking that it was her delicious butter. When informed that it was margarine, Mother Nature would get this wild look in her eyes hurl down thunderbolts upon the planet. “It’s not nice to fool Mother nature”she would exclaim. Kind of like what might be in store for you, should you go against the universe’s implicit intentions regarding the nature of your life.
as if they were buying a pack of gum.