Set in the American Midwest during the early 1900s, “A Retrieved Reformation” concerns the surprising fate of Jimmy Valentine, a skilled young safecracker who returns to society after he is paroled from prison. The story begins at the prison shortly before Jimmy Valentine if set free; the majority of the narrative occurs in Elmore, a small backwoods town in Arkansas where he settles. Major characters include Jimmy Valentine; Mike Dolan, his partner in crime; detective Ben Price, Jimmy’s nemesis; and Annabel Adams, the girl with whom Jimmy falls in love. Minor characters are the prison warden; Cronin, a prison guard; Mr. Adams, Annabel’s father; Annabel’s sister; Annabel’s two young nieces, May and Agatha; a hotel clerk; and a young boy who lives in Elmore.
As the story begins, Jimmy is called to the warden’s office. The warden hands Jimmy his pardon from the governor and advises him to stay out of trouble: “You’re not a bad fellow at heart,” he says. “Stop cracking safes, and live straight.” Jimmy laughs, feigning surprise, denying he had ever cracked a safe or committed the bank robbery that had sent him to prison.
Jimmy leaves prison the next day and takes a train to another town where he meets up with Mike Dolan, a friend and confederate. After picking up his key from Mike, Jimmy returns to his room above Mike’s restaurant where he had lived before detective Ben Price arrested him. Jimmy finds his safe cracking tools still hidden in the wall where he had left them. A week later, a string of bank safe burglaries in the Midwest comes to Ben Price’s attention; he knows Jimmy Valentine is back in business and sets out to catch him again.
Meanwhile, carrying his burglar tools in a suitcase, Jimmy arrives in small, remote Elmore, Arkansas, where he plans to rob the bank. Walking toward the hotel, he encounters a beautiful young woman. Their eyes meet, and in that instant, Jimmy undergoes a complete reformation: “Jimmy Valentine looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man.” After talking to a boy on the street, Jimmy learns she is Annabel Adams, whose father owns the bank. Jimmy continues on to the hotel, where he registers as “Ralph D. Spencer.” In a conversation with the hotel clerk, Jimmy learns that Elmore does not have a shoe store and that business is good in the town. Jimmy Valentine does not rob the bank; instead, “Ralph Spencer” settles in Elmore, opens a profitable shoe store, becomes a social success, and makes the acquaintance of Annabel Adams.
A year elapses. Still using his “Ralph Spencer” alias, Jimmy enjoys great success. His business is growing, he and Annabel are soon to be married, and Annabel’s father and sister have accepted him as one of the family. To cut completely the ties with his past, Jimmy writes a letter to one of his former friends, asking the man to meet him in Little Rock. Jimmy plans to give the man his set of safe cracking tools. The day before Jimmy is to leave for Little Rock, Ben Price arrives in Elmore, spots Jimmy Valentine, and learns he is about to marry the banker’s daughter. Ben Price has other ideas.
The next day before leaving town, with his burglar tools in his suitcase, Jimmy goes to the bank with Annabel, Annabel’s sister, and the sister’s two little girls, May and Agatha. Annabel’s father wants to show off the new burglar-proof safe he has recently installed. While all are admiring the safe, Ben Price comes into the bank and watches the scene; he tells a bank teller “he was just waiting for a man he knew.” Jimmy is unaware of the detective’s presence.
Without warning, May playfully locks Agatha in the bank vault, throwing the bolts and spinning the combination lock as she had seen her grandfather perform the maneuver. The safe cannot be opened, Mr. Adams exclaims in horror, since the timer and the combination had not been set. Furthermore, Agatha will soon run out of air in the vault. Jimmy and the others can hear Agatha crying out in panic. Annabel turns to Jimmy, begging him to do something, at least to try.
Jimmy looks at Annabel with a “soft smile.” He asks her for the rose she is wearing. Confused, Annabel hands him the rose. Jimmy puts the rose in his vest pocket, throws off his coat, and pushes up his shirtsleeves: “With that act Ralph D. Spencer passed away and Jimmy Valentine took his place.” Using his tools, Jimmy opens the safe in record time, freeing the sobbing child.
Once Agatha is safe, Jimmy puts on his coat and walks away; he hears Annabel call out to him, but he does not stop. When he encounters Ben Price, who has witnessed the dramatic scene, Jimmy tells the detective, “Well, let’s go. I don’t know that it makes much difference, now.” Price, who seems to be acting rather oddly, replies, “Guess you’re mistaken, Mr. Spencer . . . Don’t believe I recognize you.” With that, the detective leaves.
“A Retrieved Reformation” was published in 1909 in O. Henry’s book of short stories, Roads of Destiny. It features several of the narrative elements for which O. Henry’s short stories are well known. The surprise ending is especially characteristic of O. Henry’s tales, as are the story’s numerous gentle ironies. Jimmy Valentine leaves prison with no thought of leading a conventional, respectable life, and he comes to Elmore to rob the bank. Instead, he falls in love with the banker’s daughter, finds a new family, runs a flourishing shoe store (having learned to make shoes in prison), and becomes a pillar in his new community. Furthermore, the special skills he had used in his criminal pursuits enable him to save a little girl’s life. His unlikely reformation is “retrieved” by the detective most determined to arrest him.
The tone of the story, with its gentle humor and sentimentality, is representative of much of O. Henry’s work. Although Jimmy Valentine has no intention of abandoning his life of crime, love magically transforms him in an instant. Also, many of O. Henry’s stories develop themes which, in their simplicity, can be summed up as “the moral of the story.” In the case of Jimmy Valentine, goodness is rewarded. Cracking Mr. Adams’ safe does not send him back to prison; it prevents his being arrested—the final irony and one that satisfies because, as the warden observes, Jimmy is “not a bad fellow at heart.”