After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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In "After Twenty Years," who is Jimmy Wells?

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Jimmy Wells was once the best friend ("chum") of Bob, now a noted criminal. They grew up as if they were brothers, but went their separate ways twenty years before. Bob headed out west when he was 18 while Jimmy stayed in New York. The two best friends agreed to meet at a certain spot twenty years later—in front of Big Joe Brady's restaurant (which has since closed)—no matter what.

Unbeknownst to Bob, who thinks of Jimmy as a bit of a "plodder," Jimmy has become a police officer. When he recognizes his old friend as a notorious criminal with an expensive watch and flashy jewels, Jimmy asks another police officer he knows to pretend to be him. Jimmy himself doesn't have the heart to meet with and then arrest his old friend.

Jimmy is a sharp contrast to Bob. While Bob has pursued a life of crime, Jimmy has devoted himself to fighting crime. When Bob calls Jimmy the "truest, stanchest old chap," he doesn't realize the irony of his words. The integrity and loyalty that Bob remembers Jimmy having will now be used against him as Jimmy shows his loyalty to the police force and his integrity in pursuing justice by arresting his old friend.

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Jimmy Wells is a number of things, depending on how you approach the story.

To Bob, Jimmy Wells is a former friend who opted to stay in the east. From Bob's point of view, Jimmy was his best friend and the "best fellow in the world." Bob has fond memories of the two growing up together in New York.

If we look at the story from Jimmy's point of view, however, we see a police officer, an honest citizen, and a compassionate friend. Instead of arresting Bob (his former friend) himself, Jimmy asks another officer to perform his duties on his behalf.

In refusing to arrest Bob, Jimmy Wells preserves whatever goodwill still remains between him and his former friend. In other words, the fond memories from past shared experiences remain—regardless of the developments of the present.

Meanwhile, if we look at Jimmy Wells from the viewpoint of the author, we see him as a dedicated public servant, a man committed to the cause of justice.

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O. Henry shows great literary skill in his depiction of Jimmy Wells. By introducing him as a cop in uniform patrolling his beat, O. Henry actually succeeds in disguising him. The man we see twirling his club and trying doors along the block has obviously been a beat cop for many years, and I visualize him as nearly forty years old, probably somewhat overweight, sure of himself, satisfied with his job--in fact, a typical middle-aged beat cop, often called a flatfoot. Readers think they know him, but they don't! We don't connect him with Jimmy Wells, because we learn from 'Silky' Bob that Jimmy was only twenty years old when they parted twenty years earlier; and we cannot help visualizing Jimmy as a young man who is just beginning to find his way in life. Even 'Silky' Bob cannot realize that this stereotypical uniformed New York Cop he is talking to is his old pal Jimmy Wells. If Bob is deceived, it is not surprising that the reader should be deceived as well. It never occurs to us that this cop, of all people, could be Jimmy Wells. One of the ways in which we are deceived is by O. Henry showing the cop trying doors along the way. We naturally assume that this is his beat and that he is just doing his job. He is not there to meet anybody. But the fact is that he is there on the scene both because it is his beat and because he intends to meet his old friend at exactly ten o'clock. When Bob looks at his fancy watch, he tells the cop that it is three minutes to ten. Jimmy was early. That is likely why he was taking his own leisurely time about approaching the site of their rendezvous. All the description of the club-twirling is intended to show that Jimmy has been a cop for a long time and that he is walking in a leisurely fashion. O. Henry has to introduce Jimmy, one of his principal characters, without really "introducing" him. That was a problem the author handled beautifully. His stories are worth studying just for the many little details he handles so adroitly.

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