O. Henry's "A Retrieved Reformation" is built upon a series of ironies that culminate in the most moving of all. When Dandy Jim Valentine is released from prison because his friend Mike Dolan has finally effected a pardon from the governor, Jimmy has every intention of continuing his life as a safe-cracker. However, as Jimmy moves from place to place in order to avoid the law, the unexpected happens: He falls in love with Annabel Adams, daughter of the bank president of Elmore. With humorous irony, O. Henry narrates,
Mr. Ralph Spencer, the phoenix that arose from Jimmy Valentine's ashes--ashes left by the flame of a sudden and alternative attack of love--remained in Elmore, and prospered. He opened a shoe-store and secured a good run of trade.
Once he becomes an accepted member of Elmore's society and wins the affections of Miss Adams, Jimmy writes to an old friend, offering him his "kit of tools" because he no longer wants to "touch a dollar of another man's money now for a million." Then, on the very day in which he is to leave for Little Rock on the pretext of purchasing his wedding suit, Jimmy stops into the bank. In one of those flukes of fortune, a little girl enters the new vault that closes upon her. Since this vault is so new, the clock has not yet been wound or the combination set. So, there is nothing for Jimmy to do but rescue the little girl. Opening the bag which he has intended for a friend, Jimmy goes to work on the vault and successfully opens it.
Knowing that his hopes of marrying Annabel and living an honest life are ruined, Jimmy closes his case and walks toward the exit of the bank. When Ben Price accosts him at the door, Jimmy gives up all hope and resigns himself to his fate. However, ironically, Ben Price is so moved by Jimmy's act of heroism that he feigns ignorance of the safe-cracker:
"Guess you're mistaken, Mr. Spencer," he said. "Don't believe I recognize you. Your buggy's waiting for you, ain't it?"
Indeed, it is ironic that an officer of the law would pretend to not know the man he has pursued through many states; it is ironic that he would be the one to "retrieve" Ralph Spencer's reformation.
This story also has the irony that is fairly typical in some of O. Henry's other stories. As in "The Gift of the Magi," the hero, Valentine, ends up giving up the one thing that makes him happy (which in this case is Annabel) in order to bring her happiness (saving her niece). This is also what shows that he has made a true reformation from the selfish criminal that he once was. It is also quite ironic that he has to use his criminal safe-cracking skills in order to save the little girl, thereby doing the right thing.