How is O. Henry's "After Twenty Years" a tale of friendship and betrayal?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

O. Henry's "After Twenty Years" may be interpreted as a tale of friendship since the two old friends both return to their favorite restaurant after twenty years as they have promised each other they would. The story may, perhaps, be interpreted as a tale of betrayal because Jimmy Wells seems to lack the courage to confront 'Silky' Bob himself. In another sense, 'Silky' Bob betrays the honor of his and Jimmy's friendship because he has turned to a life of crime.

As an undetected Policeman Wells talks with Bob, whom he has recognized as a wanted man in the light of a match, Bob declares,

"But I know Jimmy will meet me here if he's alive, for he always was the truest staunchest old chap in the world. He'll never forget. I came a thousand miles to stand in this door to-night, and it's worth it if my old partner turns up."

At this point, Wells could have arrested Bob, but "somehow" (he later writes) he cannot bring himself to do it because this man has been his longtime friend and he does not want to humiliate him. Instead, he has a plainclothes policeman meet Bob and make the arrest. As an explanation for Bob, Jimmy writes a note stating that he was at the doorway at the appointed time, but returned to the station and asked an undercover policeman to do the job for him because he could not bring himself to make the arrest.

In one sense, therefore, Jimmy betrays an old friendship because of his duty as a policeman. In another sense, he has demonstrated his friendship by sparing 'Silky' Bob the humiliation of being arrested by the childhood best friend. Bob, too, demonstrates friendship and betrayal as he came back to New York as he promised, albeit as a criminal, not an honorable man.