man looking around a room followed by a ghostly woman

The Furnished Room

by O. Henry

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How does O. Henry use suspense in "The Furnished Room"?

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In O. Henry’s “The Furnished Room,” the reader is kept in suspense about the history of the room rented by the nameless protagonist. Initially, it is made known to the reader that the young man—the protagonist—needs a room to rent. The housekeeper shows him to a room at the back of the third floor of her building. The young man, since he is quite tired, pays “for a week in advance” and immediately occupies the room. Up until this point, the young man’s room is simply referred to as “the room.” However, immediately after he takes possession of the room, the writer calls it “the furnished room.” The reader is then made aware of the fact that this particular room is important as it is the basis of the title of the story.

As the young man reposes in “the furnished room” he suddenly becomes aware of a “strong, sweet scent of mignonette,” a scent that his beloved, whom he seeks, loves. The young man knows that “the furnished room” is speaking to him, telling him that his beloved has been there too. The writer now calls the room “the haunted room,” yet does not reveal to the reader why he calls it thus. The young man has been in many parts of the city, looking for the woman he loves. She is called Eloise Vashner and has a distinctive “dark mole near her left eyebrow.” Even though he asks the housekeeper about the past inhabitants of “the furnished room,” she refuses to divulge the truth.

Finally, all hope gone, the young man goes to bed after sealing all holes on the window and door, with the gas turned on full. The suspense is broken at the end of the story when the reader is made aware of the fact that Eloise Vashner, or someone who looks like her, lived and unfortunately died in “the furnished room” from gas asphyxiation. The reader then understands the strange scents that the protagonist experiences in the room. However, the fate of the protagonist in the sealed room is not known, and the reader wonders whether he too will die from gas asphyxiation.

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The story begins with descriptions of transients, homeless people, those who move from home to home out of economic necessity. This establishes a dark setting, stories about people who have no permanent homes. It is a description of countless nameless people, statistics really, and how they move through life "fugacious as time itself." Fugacious means "tending to disappear." The opening is quite bleak. 

Then we have an unnamed man looking for a room. The maid who answers his knock reminds him of a worm. The dark, depressing descriptions add suspense to the story by giving a foreboding sense of what might happen. 

The suspense is significantly increased when we learn that the man has been searching for someone he loves: 

He was sure that since her disappearance from home this great, water-girt city held her somewhere, but...

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it was like a monstrous quicksand, shifting its particles constantly, with no foundation, its upper granules of today buried tomorrow in ooze and slime. 

The room the man finds himself in is filled with gloom, which O. Henry so poetically describes. All of this gloom combined with the saga of the man's ongoing, seemingly futile search adds to the suspense. The reader is left with bleak suppositions. If the man finds who he is looking for, will it be a tragic discovery? Given the bleak mood, setting, and situation, the suspense is heightened by the likelihood of something tragic to come. 

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