Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Pretense, disguise, the deceptions in everyday lives—these were essential themes exploited frequently by O. Henry, in whose tales nothing is ever what it appears to be. The cloak of Old South respectability Major Caswell tries to project in his apparel is belied by the insensitive and coarse persona under the clothes. Conversely, the picture of secure, comfortable aristocracy Azalea Adair endeavors to assume is immediately brought into question by her threadbare poverty. Uncle Caesar, at first suggested as a conniving opportunist looking to extort fares from strangers, is eventually revealed as philanthropic, even heroic.

The inner lives of ordinary people become correlated with the pulse of an ordinary American city where—as in the most glamorous, cosmopolitan places—the baseness and nobility of human nature are constantly in play. The repulsive, abusive husband, self-indulgent and animalized; the noble, if misplaced, silent martyrdom of the suffering wife; the devoted and loyal Uncle Caesar, who selflessly supports his mistress and finally liberates her from future victimization—these are all character types manipulated through their melodramatic moments in the so-called human comedy by the twists and turns of coincidence and fate, accident and destiny.

Evil is punished in “A Municipal Report” by a swiftly administered hand of justice; the simple juxtapositions of good and bad are easily discernible; the author brings about a popular catharsis. O. Henry, in sketching the triumph of good, reduces the complications of life inherent in the more complex moral dilemmas of living: Is Uncle Caesar morally defensible in his murder of Caswell? Is the agent justified in removing and disposing of incriminating evidence? Such questions serve to deflect the emotional focus of the tale, for the passionate response to the story on its most elemental level is in perfect agreement with the way the adventure turns out. Ordinary people react with their spontaneously engaged feelings. Thus, as the agent leaves Nashville musing, “I wonder what’s happening in Buffalo,” all is right in O. Henry’s world.