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Jimmy wants to be straight more than anything, but when his fiancé’s sister’s life is threatened, he makes the ironically moral choice of using his criminal skills to save her, therefore risking ruination. Saving her is the only honest choice.
Jimmy Valentine is a reformed safe-cracker. After leaving prison, he went straight. He vowed to never break the law again once he met and fell in love with Annabel Adams. He was happy. In a letter to his friend Billy, Jimmy explains why he has quite safecracking.
I've quit the old business—a year ago. I've got a nice store. I'm making an honest living, and I'm going to marry the finest girl on earth two weeks from now. It's the only life, Billy—the straight one. I wouldn't touch a dollar of another man's money now for a million. (p. 3)
Jimmy is fully prepared to live this life of honesty, selling his tools and never looking back. Though Annabel is the banker’s daughter, this is not a temptation for Jimmy.
Then Annabel’s father gets a new vault for the bank. This vault is high-tech, and has a new patented door. It “fastened with three solid steel bolts thrown simultaneously with a single handle, and had a time-lock.” (p. 4)
The younger children are fascinated by the shiny safe. One child playfully locks another in the safe, and the combination has not been set. Jimmy has to face an ironic (unexpected) choice. He can use his criminal skills to get her out, or stay “straight” and let her die. Becoming a criminal again, and letting everyone know who he is, is the only choice.
In a minute Jimmy's pet drill was biting smoothly into the steel door. In ten minutes—breaking his own burglarious record—he threw back the bolts and opened the door. (p. 5)
Jimmy breaks the record he set as a criminal, trying to rob people. The irony of this situation is that if Jimmy had not been a former criminal, the little girl would have died. By saving her, he exposes himself. He assumes that the cop will arrest him. However, Ben Price realizes what has happened. He allows Jimmy to “retrieve” his reformation, and return to his honest life.
Note: page numbers are approximate and will vary by publisher. A copy is attached. You can find the full text on the last link.
Henry, 0. "A Retrieved Reformation by O. Henry." Literature Collection. Web. 04 May 2012. <http://www.literaturecollection.com/a/o_henry/106/>.
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