What is the conflict and twist to the short story "Heart and Hands"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

O. Henry is a short story writer famous for his ironic "twists" at the end of his stories. In "Hearts and Hands," the conflict and twist revolve around two men who are handcuffed to one another on a train in Denver. One of them is young and handsome, the other is older and glum-looking. 

They sit down across from a pretty young woman dressed very elegantly. Her name is Miss Fairchild. She recognizes the younger man as someone who used to run in the same social circles, Mr. Easton. Miss Fairchild implies that she used to have romantic feelings or attraction to Mr. Easton. There is a hint that Mr. Easton feels uncomfortable and embarrassed that she has recognized him and started talking to him. 

Before he can say much else, the glum faced man stops him and tells the girl that Mr. Easton is a United States marshall, who is taking the glum faced man to prison at Leavenworth. He has been sentenced to seven years for counterfeiting. Miss Fairchild seems to be impressed by Mr. Easton's new job because he is now a "dashing Western hero." 

The girl starts talking about irrelevant and fluffy things, and Mr. Easton seems to be becoming more and more uncomfortable. The glum faced man asks Mr. Easton to take him out to the smoker car for a smoke, which he complies with. The excuse allows the men to leave Miss Fairchild. 

When they leave, the point of view shifts to two different passengers who had been listening to the conversation between Miss Fairchild, Mr. Easton, and the glum faced man. One of them remarks on how young the marshal is, and the other corrects the mistake. It was actually the glum faced man who was the marshall, and Mr. Easton who was going to prison for seven years for counterfeiting money. The detail was that Mr. Easton's right hand was cuffed to the marshal's left hand, when both men were right handed. Clearly, the marshal would choose to cuff his non-dominant hand to the prisoner's dominant one. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In O'Henry's "Heart and Hands," the conflict seems to be between Easton and Miss Fairchild. Miss Fairchild recognizes Easton while on the train; however, Easton is handcuffed to another man at the moment, and he does not want to draw her attention to it. When Miss Fairchild becomes insistent that Easton acknowledge her, the other man quickly jumps in to state that Easton is the marshal who is bringing him in to do 7 years of prison for counterfeiting.

The twist comes at the end when we learn that the unnamed man is, in fact, the TRUE marshal, and that Easton is the one heading to prison. The marshal does not want to humiliate Easton in front of an old friend by showing Miss Fairchild that Easton is the true convict.

A second twist comes at the very end when passengers who overheard the conversation recognize that a marshal would never handcuff a man to his right hand. This detail from O'Henry shows us how we often ignore seemingly obvious details when the information is not appealing to us -- two complete strangers picked up on Easton's character much quicker than an old friend.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial