The story revolves around a mysterious cursed talisman—a monkey’s paw that symbolizes greed—everything that its owner could possibly wish for and the unrestricted ability to make it happen. This power makes the paw alluring, even to unselfish people who desire nothing and have everything they need.
Cold wind is a constant in the story, as it serves as a foreshadowing to several events. It is present when the Whites are waiting for General Morris to arrive, who brings the dooming talisman, when the representative from Maw and Meggins brings the news of their son, and finally on the night when the Whites wish their son back to life and reanimate a corpse.
The story's main character, an elderly man named Mr. White, is told of a monkey's paw that has the power to grant three wishes. Despite being warned about the mysterious talisman–he learns that it had a had a spell put on it by a fakir (holy man) from India who wanted people to understand the dangers of interfering with fate–he takes the paw and wishes for money. His son then dies in an accident, and the family is given the money they wished for. This event emphasizes the story's theme, which is that interfering with fate, especially when driven by greed, leads to tragedy.