After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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How does O. Henry's use of third-person narration in "After Twenty Years" affect the story?

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In the short story "After Twenty Years," O. Henry uses the third person to describe a man who has made arrangements to meet an old friend whom he hasn't seen for twenty years. The use of the third person adds suspense and enables the subtle plot twists that drive the story. O. Henry communicates these twists through dialogue, as when Bob momentarily mistakes another man for his friend Jimmy.

"You're not Jimmy Wells," he snapped. "Twenty years is a long time, but not long enough to change a man's nose from a Roman to a pug."

The third-person narration allows for the gradual development of the plot, with different people appearing, leaving the reader unsure of who is a protagonist and how the story will end. Also, because the story is told in the third person, it leaves more uncertainty as to the story arc than had it been told in the first person, which would reveal at least something of the narrator's circumstances.

Stylistically, O. Henry's use of the third person allows for a more detached, detailed depiction of the scene:

The policeman on the beat moved up the avenue impressively. The impressiveness was habitual and not for show, for spectators were few.

This sets the stage for the unfolding action.

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If O. Henry's short story "After Twenty Years" had not been told in the third person, it would have to have been narrated in the first person either by Jimmy or by Bob. Obviously, allowing Jimmy to tell the story would have destroyed the suspense and the final twist completely. Also, he would have to have hidden somewhere or performed some other sleight of hand to explain his being able to give an account of the conversation between Bob and the plain-clothes police officer. To have given the story to Bob, on the other hand, might have preserved the mystery, but there would have been too little variation in the tone, since Bob speaks in very simple, declarative sentences and is not much given to description.

In fact, the reader has the best of both worlds—since the dialogue which forms most of the story contains a first-person narrative by Bob and the story ends with a note from Jimmy, neither of which would have been so effective without the framing of a third-person narrative.

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Henry's use of the third-person point of view gives the reader a much broader perspective. This allows us to take a step back and observe the two main characters as they meet outside the hardware store. If the story had been told from a first-person point of view, say by Jimmy Wells the policeman, then the final twist would've been much less effective.

Immediately, we'd start asking ourselves why the story was being told from Jimmy's point of view, possibly leading us to conclude that he was the friend for whom 'Silky' Bob's been waiting. We don't have that problem with the third-person point of view. The fact that we're separated from both Jimmy and his friend keeps us guessing right up until the end as to how things might turn out.

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O. Henry's use of third-person narration in "After Twenty Years" means that the reader is able to make the crucial discovery of the cop's real identity at the same time as other characters in the story. This skillful use of timing and narrative technique enables the reader to experience tension and to engage emotionally with the short story. If the story were written in the first person, from the point of view of Jimmy, for example, then the reader might know from the beginning of the story that the cop was actually Bob's old friend Jimmy. This knowledge may have given the reader less reason to carry on reading, as the drama of the unveiling of the truth would not exist. Additionally, the third-person narration allows the reader to imagine what is going on in the minds of both Bob and Jimmy; by giving the reader a chance to imagine their emotions and thoughts, O. Henry allows the characters come alive for the readers in a more memorable way.

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