Typical of his writing, the short story "A Retrieved Reformation" has its resolution in O. Henry's customary surprise ending. And, clearly,this story evidences the verity of the statement about love by Sir Hugh Walpole (1884-1941):
The most wonderful of all things in life is the discovery of another human being with whom one's relationship has a growing depth, beauty and joy as the years increase.
The inner progressiveness between two human beings is a most marvellous thing; it cannot be found by looking for it or by passionately wishing for it. It is a sort of divine accident, and the most wonderful of all things in life.
All of Walpole's statements are true for Jimmy Valentine. When he was pardoned by the governor of his state, Jimmy certainly had not been rehabilitated. For, he lies to the warden about the crime he committed; moreover, when he is released he immediately returns to his former life. It is not until he travels to Elmore, Arkansas, after having robbed a few banks, that Jimmy experiences "the divine accident" of which Walpole writes. Like Romeo, Jimmy is star-struck by the daughter of the local banker, Annabel Adams. So smitten is he that he inquires about her as soon as she has passed him.
Yet, still planning his "bank job," Jimmy Valentine uses the pretence of going into the shoe business as his reason for staying in Elmore. Once in his room, however,
Mr. Ralph Spencer, the phoenix that arose from Jimmy Valentine's ashes,--ashes left by a sudden and alternative attack of love--remained in Elmore and prospered. He opened a shoe store and secured a good run of trade.
Love has conquered the villainous side of the man who has fallen in love: Jimmy Valentine, the safe cracker, is no more. Thus, Jimmy, now a truly rehabilitated man can live a decent, fulfilled life. However, as fate would have it, the investigator,Ben Price, is on the trail of Dandy Jim Valentine. This trail leads him to Elmore, Arkansas, where he surreptiously observes Mr. Spenser, who is being shown the new vault by his future father-in-law.
When one of the children who have accompanied an Adams family member is inadvertently locked inside the vault; a new vault that has not yet had its clock set. The mother of Agatha, who is held captive, becomes frantic in her anxiety for her child's life. "Annabel turned to Jimmy, her large eyes full of anguish, but not yet despairing." Ralph Spencer a/k/a Jimmy Valentine experiences an epiphany in those eyes. Despite the risk to his reputation and his love, he must act; he must save Agatha, the little child held captive.
Jimmy becomes a hero in that moment. Opening his suitcase with safe-cracker tools, he opens the vault in a matter of minutes. Agatha is gathered into the arms of her mother, and Jimmy reclaims the coat he has removes. Figuring that his ruse of being an honest man is ruined, he closes his suitcase and walks out the front door. However, a large man blocks his way: Ben Price has observed all.
'Hello, Ben,' said Jimmy, still with his strange smile. 'Got around at last, have you? Well, let's go. I don't know that it makes much difference, now.
In a strange reaction, Ben Price tells Jimmy that he is mistaken, calling him Mr. Spencer, for truly he is another man. "Don't believe I recognize you. Your buggy's waiting for you, ain't it?" Then, Ben Price left.
Jimmy Valentine is reformed when he falls in love with Annabel Adams. His reformation is lost when he breaks into the vault of the Elmore Bank as he is observed by Ben Price who has seen Jimmy look into Annabel's eyes and smile oddly. But, Ben Price retrieves this reformation for Jimmy as he cannot help noticing the power of Annabel's love upon Jimmy Valentine. Truly, Ben Price knows, the man has definitely been rehabilitated. So, in a surprise ending, the significance of the title is revealed as Ben Price retrieves the discarded reformation for Mr. Ralph Spencer.