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 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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