What is the setting in "After Twenty Years"?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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O. Henry does not specify where his story is taking place. However, when 'Silky' Bob is talking to the policeman without recognizing him as his old friend Jimmy Wells, Bob reveals the name of the city.

The next morning I was to start for the West to make my fortune. You couldn't have dragged Jimmy out of New York; he thought it was the only place on earth. 

In those days New York meant only Manhattan. Now the name of the city applies to a much larger area called Greater New York. 'Silky' Bob is standing in the doorway of a store in the central part of Manhattan. The city is booming because of its great location, its harbor, and the influx of immigrants from Europe. The district has apparently changed a lot. Twenty years ago Bob and Jimmy had said goodbye right there at a restaurant called "Big Joe" Brady's. According to the policeman, the restaurant had been torn down five years ago. No doubt New York was undergoing many rapid changes because of population growth.

Bob has been traveling all over the "West" in those twenty years. What they called the West in those days is what is now called the Midwest. Bob probably never traveled any farther west than Chicago in Illinois. The change in the site where the two men are standing, and the changes in the district as a whole, symbolize the passage of time as well as the changes that have taken place in the men's characters. Their characters have evolved as they have adapted to their environments. According to Bob:

A man gets in a groove in New York. It takes the West to put a razor-edge on him.”

Jimmy has certainly gotten into a groove in New York. He wears a uniform, patrols the same streets, probably has a wife, children, and a home. Bob has become hardened, street-smart, and furtive. He has probably talked to dozens of cops over the years and thinks he knows just how to handle them.

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