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"The Cop and the Anthem" is a short story by American author O. Henry (a penname) that describes the attempts of a hobo named Soapy to get arrested, so that he can spend the winter in jail, instead of on the streets. Unfortunately none of Soapy's schemes for getting arrested go according to plan, and as he contemplates what to do next, he happens to hear an anthem (this was originally a word for a religious song) played from a local church, which inspires a spiritual epiphany in Soapy; he now wants to reform himself, get a job, and regain his self-respect. However, as he contemplates this new future, he is arrested for loitering, and is sentenced to three months in jail, just as he had originally intended.
The meaning of the title is fairly straightforward; I don't believe there's any sort of hidden meaning or interpretation here. The cop and the anthem are essentially the climax and resolution to the story; they both appear soon after one another, emphasized by Henry's spare writing style. As these two things are responsible for much of the irony in the story, this may be Henry's way of emphasizing the ironic effect. On the other hand, he may have simply needed a name for the story, and "The Cop and the Anthem" probably seemed like a better choice than something like "Soapy's Dilemma".
O. Henry seems to have been a little careless about giving titles to his stories. Many of the titles could be improved on. No doubt he wrote the stories first and thought about titles later. He might not even have invented all his own titles but left it up to the editor to do so or to change whatever working title the author had given the story. Editors will often take that upon themselves without even advising the author. On the other hand, an editor can make the story look attractive to the readers by commissioning an illustration from a commercial artist. For years O. Henry was turning out one of his stories every week. He must have been chronically working under deadline pressure, because there was a blank space in the publication just waiting for him to fill up with words. This, plus his heavy drinking, could account for the fact that his titles are not always inspired.
The cop in the title is, of course, the cop who arrests Soapy for vagrancy and loitering. The anthem is the music being played by the organist inside the little church. There is supposed to be an ironic contrast between the two. The cop is Soapy's nemesis and represents the law, while the anthem represents Soapy's better nature and his desire to reform. Church anthems are always intended to inspire good thoughts in the hearers, and this particular one had an especially strong effect on Soapy because of all the troubles he had experienced on that cold day.
It is always a mistake to look for "meaning" in a short story or in any work of art. A short story, like all works of art, is intended to convey a "feeling." We feel pity for poor Soapy because he seems to have lost his only chance to pull himself up out of the sordid way of life he has been leading for years. We identify with him in realizing that he can't win, whatever he tries to do. He is a loser and this latest experience only confirms his "feeling" of being a loser.
The story reminds me of the moral that Nathaniel Hawthorne added to what I consider his best short story, "Wakefield," which is included in his well-known book Twice-Told Tales, a classic of American fiction.
Amid the seeming confusion of our mysterious world, individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever. Like Wakefield, he may become, as it were, the Outcast of the Universe.
Soapy dropped out of the conventional world on a whim, like Hawthorne's character Wakefield. Soapy probably thought he could go back to respectable life any time he chose to do so. But he found that life has a way of closing doors behind you which are nearly impossible to open again. O. Henry himself was haunted by the fact that he had served about three years in a state prison for embezzlement. He never got over it. He wrote under an assumed name because he did not want anyone to connect him with his past. His real name, as most people know, was William Sydney Porter. He was a successful author but must have suffered terribly from depression for the rest of his life. He became a hopeless alcoholic, consuming up to two quarts of whiskey a day. And he died when he was only forty-seven.
Every choice we make in life is like choosing between two roads at an intersection. Each road will take us in a different direction, and it is difficult if not impossible to turn around and go back.
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