Is there any direct characterization in "A Retrieved Reformation"?

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samcestmoi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Direct characterization is the explicit description of a character’s personality by the author.  Indirect characterization reveals detail of a character’s personality without explicitly describing him or her.  Instead, we learn about a character through his or her actions, dress, thoughts, and other characters’ responses and thoughts about him or her.  In “A Retrieved Reformation,” we learn about Jimmy Valentine and Ben Price solely through their actions, that is, through indirect rather than direct characterization.

For example, we know that Jimmy Valentine is clever, that he is a safecracker, and that he is a liar.  O. Henry tells us none of this directly, but we learn it through Valentine’s actions and others’ reactions to him.  Ben Price knows that only Valentine could be capable of the safecracking ventures committed after his release, which gives us an idea as to Jimmy’s skill.  Also, his actions after his release are a direct contrast to the assertions he makes to the prison officer:  “Me?”  he asks, as if the officer has falsely accused him of a crime, “I never broke open a safe in my life….I was never in Springfield in my life.”  This allows the reader to see that he is a liar, and that he is indeed a criminal.  In addition, after he changes his way of life and becomes engaged to Annabelle Adams, we learn about his happy, friendly personality through the thoughts of the people of the town.  Everyone likes him, his shoe shop is successful, his new family is proud of him – these are the only indications we get of his behavior, through the reactions of others.

As for Ben Price, we know that he is a determined and competent detective, but that he is also an honest, merciful, and forgiving man.  O. Henry writes at one point that “People with safes full of money were glad to hear that Ben Price was at work trying to catch Mr. Valentine.”  This indicates that Ben Price is good at his job, because he can put fearful people at ease.  Here we have peoples’ reactions to Mr. Price as an indication of his personality, rather than a direct description saying that Price is the best in the business.  At the end of the story, we have this exchange between Valentine and Price, Price having just witnessed Valentine crack open a safe to save a young girl trapped in the bank vault:

“Hello, Ben!” said Jimmy, still with his strange smile. “You’re here at last, are you? Let’s go. I don’t care, now.” And then Ben Price acted rather strangely. “I guess you’re wrong about this, Mr. Spencer,” he said. “I don’t believe I know you, do I?” And Ben Price turned and walked slowly down the street.

Two indirect characterizations are at work here:  we see through Jimmy’s actions that he is a changed man, willing to take responsibility for his actions and face the consequences of his criminal acts.  We also see that Price is merciful through his actions, letting Valentine go free as Ralph Spencer after seeing the extent of Valentine’s reformation.