After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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What is the moral lesson of the story, "After Twenty Years"?

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Another possible moral lesson intended by O. Henry in "After Twenty Years " is that once a man becomes an habitual criminal he can never trust anybody, not even his own best friend. This is the penalty any man or woman has to pay for leading a life of...

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crime. They have to keep on the run. They can't stay in one place and they can never really close their eyes and rest. Bob thought he was safe enough when he was a thousand miles away from Chicago, where he was wanted, and an equal distance away from the West, where he had engaged in all his unlawful activities. He tells the unidentified uniformed cop:

"You see, the West is a pretty big proposition, and I kept hustling around over it pretty lively."

He had to be on the lam all the time because it was never safe to stay in any place where he had committed a crime. The West in those days was a big place, but it was full of small towns where everybody knew everybody. So the same was true at the next place and the next. The police would be looking for him. His victims might also be looking for him. His picture would be posted in various places. Rewards might be offered. Anyone might recognize him and turn him in. He had to keep moving to stay free, and he had to keep committing crimes in order to be able to keep moving. 

This truth is beautifully exemplified in the original film version of Bonnie and Clyde starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. They could never stop running, and they had to keep committing robberies in order to pay for food, gasoline, and overnight shelter. But the more crimes they committed, and the farther they fled, the more notorious they became. The same is exemplified in another excellent movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Robert Newman and Robert Redford. They flee all the way to Bolivia to escape a few pursuers and meet their fate at the hands of the whole Bolivian army.

Jimmy's character does not change throughout the story, but Bob changes. He is obviously full of self-confidence at the beginning and a shaken man facing judgment at the end. So the moral of O. Henry's story might be the old-fashioned one, which can be illustrated and dramatized in many different ways:

Crime does not pay.

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I believe the moral of O. Henry's "After Twenty Years" is that people change and grow apart. The reason they grow apart is that they have different characters and therefore must grow in different directions. It was easy enough for Bob and Jimmy to be friends when they were young and had many of the same interests in common, but it was inevitable that they would become quite different from each other after such a long period as twenty years. Jimmy would not even like Bob or want to be his friend after such a long time, and it is equally unlikely that Bob would like Jimmy who had turned into a cop. O. Henry's story seems intended to illustrate the effects on people of the passage of time. Unfortunately, everything changes, just as the restaurant where the two friends said goodbye has evolved into a hardware store.

Here are some quotes on the subject of friendship which I have saved in a computer file over the years because they struck me as truthful and important to understand, even though accepting them might be painful.

What men have called friendship is only a social arrangement, a mutual adjustment of interests, an interchange of services given and received; it is, in sum, simply a business from which those involved propose to derive a steady profit for their own self-love.                                       Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld

Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.                                                                   W. H. Auden

A man’s friendships are, like his will, invalidated by marriage--but they are also no less invalidated by the marriage of his friends.                                                                  Samuel Butler

Do not keep on with the mockery of friendship after the substance is gone--but part, while you can part friends. Bury the carcass of friendship: it is not worth embalming.                                                            William Hazlitt

It’s no good trying to keep up old friendships. It’s painful for both sides. The fact is, one grows out of people, and the only thing is to face it.                                                            Somerset Maugham

A relationship is like a shark: it has to constantly keep moving forward or it dies. And I’m afraid what we’ve got here is a dead shark.                                                           Woody Allen

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Perhaps the greatest moral lesson that the reader of O. Henry's short story "After Twenty Years" gleans from its reading is the value that friendship should hold in one's life.  For, it is out of respect for the strong, deep friendship of his youth that Jimmy Wells, now Patrolman Wells, does not arrest 'Silky' Bob, a criminal wanted in Chicago.  He simply cannot degrade Bob to the level of a fugitive from the law when he encounters him in the doorway of what once was 'Big Joe' Brady's restaurant.  And, so, Patrolman Wells asks a plainsclothesman to make the arrest for him and give Bob his note of explanation that he has had to perform the duties of his job, while at the same time demonstrating a respect for the friendship which they have had all these years.

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What is the moral of the story After Twenty Years?

One valuable takeaway from O'Henry's "After Twenty Years" is that the past always catches up to you. Bob lives a life of crime, and he thinks all his "hustling around" will never catch up to him. He is in the wrong place at the wrong time, so he is arrested. For keeping his appointment with Jimmy, Bob pays for his crimes. O'Henry seems to be cautioning against doing bad things, as they will always catch up in the end.

Another lesson we learn is not to underestimate anyone. Bob brags about his success and hopes "Jimmy has done half as well. He was kind of a plodder, though, good fellow as he was." Bob is saying that the Jimmy he knew was unambitious, yet he was a good person. He believes that his friend will keep the appointment because Jimmy is reliable, and "he always was the truest, stanchest old chap in the world." So, while Bob trusts Jimmy will come, he does not think Jimmy will have been successful in his life. He certainly never guesses that Jimmy has become a police officer who will have him arrested. The truth is, if Jimmy is so true and such a good person, the only thing he can do is turn in his old friend; Bob does not seem to know Jimmy so well.

Another valuable moral here is that doing the right thing must take precedence over everything else. The two friends keep their twenty-year appointment; that should say something about the value of friendship. However, once Jimmy recognizes that his old friend is a wanted criminal, he must make a choice. He writes to Bob, "Somehow I couldn't do it myself" because he feels guilty for betraying his old friend. It's an understandable feeling. But Jimmy knows the right thing to do is to arrest Bob, so he places the law before a friendship.

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What is the moral of the story After Twenty Years?

It's an interesting question (and be aware that, more widely speaking, there's nothing requiring that any particular story have a moral, and in fact many writers prefer not to assign a clear moral to their work, preferring to look at themes more broadly and ambiguously—leaving the questions open, so to speak). In this story, however, I'd suggest there's a strong focus on the degree to which people can change across the decades, sometimes for the worse. From that perspective, I would say that one moral is to be careful about the kind of choices one would make, because these would have a lifelong impact on one's life as it will follow. In Bob's case, his turn towards a life of crime will ultimately lead him to be arrested within the events of the story.

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What is the moral of the story After Twenty Years?

I believe it would be safe to say that the theme of O. Henry's story "After Twenty Years" is an old one: Crime Does Not Pay. O. Henry contrasts two different characters who have two different philosophies and two different value systems. Bob is greedy and materialistic. He wants to make a lot of money, buy a lot of things, enjoy a life of luxury, and display his success conspicuously. And he doesn't care how he gets the money as long as he gets it. Jimmy is conventional and conservative. He wants a good steady job that is socially useful. He wants a home and a family. The two men's different philosophies take them on different paths until they finally meet again after twenty years. Jimmy has a good steady job that is useful to society. He likes his work and he has security. When he retires, he will receive a pension for the rest of his life. Bob, on the other hand, has made a lot of money through crooked means. Still, he has no home, no family, and no security. The money hasn't really done him much good. He has spent some of it on a scarf pin with a big diamond and a pocket watch decorated with small diamonds. It is important to him to have other people look at him, to admire and envy him. He is always on the run, and it is probably inevitable that he will end up in prison sooner or later. In O. Henry's story, Bob discovers that he can't even trust the man who used to be his best friend. Bob probably has no close friends because he never stays in the same place long enough to acquire friends, and also because he is not the kind of man that decent people would want to have as a friend. His flashy lifestyle has made him conspicuous, easy to identify wherever he goes. His career ends when he is led off to jail. If he has a whole string of crimes charged against him in Chicago and elsewhere in the West, he could be spending a long part of his life in state prisons. Crime really does not pay.

The theme of "Crime Does Not Pay" is also to be found in at least two of O. Henry's other most popular stories, "A Retrieved Reformation" and "The Ransom of Red Chief." In "A Retrieved Reformation," Jimmy Valentine falls in love and plans to get married, but he realizes that his whole shady past has come back to haunt him, regardless of how much money he stole and how highly regarded he might be in the underworld as a professional safe-cracker. In "The Ransom of Red Chief," the two kidnappers are forced to pay to get rid of their victim. O. Henry served time in prison for embezzlement, and he associated with professional criminals after his release. He must have come to realize that crime ultimately catches up with its perpetrators.

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Can you suggest a proverb that would bring out the moral of the story "After Twenty Years"? Discuss it in brief.

A proverb that comes to mind is from Aesop's fable "The Tortoise and the Hare":

Slow and steady wins the race.

There is nothing flashy, quick, or flamboyant about Jimmy. His friend Bob says of him,

He was a kind of plodder . . . good fellow as he was.

Jimmy never leaves his hometown—twenty years after Bob has left to make his fortune, Jimmy is still living in New York. All these years, he has been working faithfully as a police officer. Bob, meanwhile, has pursued a criminal path out west and arrives back in New York for their planned twenty-year meeting sporting a diamond scarf pin and a diamond-studded watch. On the surface, he seems to be the winner. He seems to have raced ahead of his old friend.

Nevertheless, Bob notes that Jimmy is steadfast, saying,

I know Jimmy will meet me here if he's alive, for he always was the truest, stanchest old chap in the world.

Jimmy is like the tortoise, moving ahead slowly and steadily toward his goal of living an honorable life. He arguably "wins" in the end, arresting his old friend and showing that steadfast purpose counts.

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