What is Jimmy Well’s internal conflict in the story "After Twenty Years"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We are not aware that Jimmy Wells had any internal conflict until the story is almost over. Then we realize that it was Jimmy himself who was listening to Bob in the doorway of the hardware store. Jimmy was the cop. He recognized his old friend Bob right away, but he didn't identify him as the man who was wanted by the Chicago police until Bob lighted his cigar.

The man in the doorway struck a match and lit his cigar. The light showed a pale, square-jawed face with keen eyes, and a little white scar near his right eyebrow. His scarf pin was a large diamond, oddly set.

Now Jimmy starts to experience an internal conflict. He doesn't like the thought of arresting his old friend who has come a thousand miles to meet him after twenty years. As a policeman, however, Jimmy doesn't like the idea of letting Bob go free. It is Jimmy's sworn duty to arrest Bob. He knows that thid is what he would expect of any other police officer under similar circumstances. But obviously Jimmy hesitates. He continues the conversation.

“It sounds pretty interesting,” said the policeman. “Rather a long time between meets, though, it seems to me. Haven't you heard from your friend since you left?”

No doubt Jimmy is wondering if Bob has heard that he had joined the New York Police Department. But Bob tells him they lost touch with each other after only a year or two. Jimmy may have been a cop for the past eighteen or nineteen years. He has become a typical middle-aged beat cop.

We can assume that Jimmy is wrestling with his internal conflict throughout the remainder of their conversation. Then he asks a question which shows that he has decided what to do, although the reader will not realize the import of that question until later.

“I'll be on my way. Hope your friend comes around all right. Going to call time on him sharp?”

Bob's reply gives Jimmy the information he needs.

“I should say not!” said the other. “I'll give him half an hour at least. If Jimmy is alive on earth he'll be here by that time. So long, officer.”

Jimmy has resolved his internal conflict. Bob must be arrested. But Jimmy won't have to make the collar himself if he has enough time to get another cop to do it. Bob will be there for at least another half-hour. He has just lighted his cigar and wouldn't want to smoke it outside the shelter of the doorway in this wet weather. So there are two reasons why Jimmy can count on him being there for a half-hour.

Evidently the precinct station house is very close by. We know this because the plainclothes arresting officer shows up in about twenty minutes. In that time Jimmy has been able to get to the station house, where he knows everybody, since this is his precinct, and recruit another cop to make the collar. That other cop will have time to get to the hardware-store doorway within twenty minutes, leaving a safety margin of ten minutes.

Jimmy's note, handed to Bob in front of the lighted drugstore, explains Jimmy's internal conflict and his decision.

Bob: I was at the appointed place on time. When you struck the match to light your cigar I saw it was the face of the man wanted in Chicago. Somehow I couldn't do it myself, so I went around and got a plainclothesman to do the job.