The significance of the title of O’Henry’s “After Twenty Years” is great. Taken literally, the title reflects that the action of the story takes place after twenty years of time have elapsed. However, the title also reflects a theme and irony of the story.
The theme that true friendship spans time, even decades, is clear. Jimmy and Bob are old friends. At some point, twenty years ago, they agreed they would meet at this place and time. It’s clear that they were good friends. Bob reminisces about Jimmy, “the truest, stanchest old chap in the world,” and is excited to meet his old buddy. Even though the friends have not directly communicated with each other over time, their bond remains strong so that both men keep their appointment to reunite after twenty years.
Additionally, the friendship is still so strong that Jimmy cannot arrest his old friend when he recognizes Bob as a wanted criminal. Jimmy took an oath as a police officer to uphold the law; he will not turn his back on that oath, but he also cannot face his friend as he arrests him. So, he asks another officer to arrest Bob. Jimmy finds a way to uphold his oath and morals, even if that means placing his friend in jail—he remains the loyal and true person that Bob remembers him being.
It is ironic that the two old friends end up on opposite sides of the law. It’s to be presumed that friends have things in common—goals, ideals, morals. Yet, Bob becomes a criminal while Jimmy becomes a lawman. Although they were raised together “just like two brothers,” they part ways in morality. Perhaps circumstances are responsible for Bob’s change, since he traveled a lot in his search for success in the West and had to compete with “some of the sharpest wits.”
Jimmy, on the other hand, remained in New York where he had grown up, so he might not have had to struggle as much as Bob did. When Bob recognizes that the tall officer is not Jimmy, he says that twenty years is a long time—but not long enough to change someone’s facial features. The officer responds that twenty years “sometimes changes a good man into a bad one.”