The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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In the story "The Ransom of Red Chief," why is Bill's favorite Biblical character King Herod? Why is this humorous? 

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Bill likes King Herod because he was—shall we say—rather more forceful in dealing with young children than Bill could ever be. Bill desperately wishes he could channel the murderous spirit of this biblical baby-killer in handling the spoiled brat that is Johnny Dorset. That is he woefully unable to do so is ironic indeed. Bill wants to be tough just like his favorite character from the Bible but somehow just can't manage it. In case we didn't already know it, Bill lacks the ruthlessness to be a master criminal like his hero; he and his partner Sam are strictly small-time.

Angered and embarrassed by his inability to tame little Johnny, Bill thinks it would've been better if little Johnny had never been born at all or maybe bumped off when he was younger. At least then, Bill wouldn't have to deal with him now.

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"The Ransom of Red Chief" is about two kidnappers who are terrorized by the boy they have kidnapped. This is at the center of the reference to Herod who, in the New Testament, famously ordered the widespread deaths of male babies. This is actually a statement of just how helpless and in over his head Bill feels and the degree to which Johnny has gotten into his head.

I do want to note, the larger tone of the story is very important in setting context for this kind of line. After all, were it a horror story or a thriller, such a reference would have been sinister. But "Ransom of Red Chief" is itself a humorous story. The two robbers are petty criminals, not murderers—and as we see throughout the story, they tend to be at Johnny's mercy rather than the other way around.

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Bill Driscoll is one of two kidnappers who take a young boy named Johnny Dorset for ransom. Ironically, however, the boy winds up taking control of the situation because he terrifies one kidnapper, Bill, while the second, Sam, negotiates the ransom. As a result, Bill endures physically exhausting play with the rambunctious Johnny. Johnny yells at, threatens, hits and punches Bill--leaving a few marks in the process! Bill soon becomes overwhelmed and fatigued. As Sam attempts to leave him with the boy a second time, Bill makes the following comment:

"Sam, do you know who my favorite Biblical character is? . . . King Herod . . . You won't go away and leave me here alone, will you, Sam?"

King Herod is the one who ordered all firstborn baby boys killed when he heard rumors that a baby had been born who would take his place as King of the Jews. Since Johnny is his father's eldest, Bill's reference to King Herod from the New Testament is appropriate. He implies that King Herod had the right idea by killing little boys. This helps to show the reader how Bill truly feels about Johnny. He either wishes he could kill Johnny, or he wishes Johnny had never been born. Either way, it is humorous that Bill would make this connection to King Herod in the Bible. It shows just how overwhelmed Bill is after spending so much time with Johnny. The comment is also funny because it isn't explained further. The King Herod comment is left untouched by the characters so readers can make the connection to the story about King Herod for themselves and draw their own conclusions about Bill's feelings in "The Ransom of Red Chief."

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