What's the roadblock of retrieved reformation?  

Expert Answers
William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jimmy's past catches up with him. He may have fallen in love and decided to reform. He may have saved the life of a little girl who was accidentally locked inside the bank vault. He may have become a successful small-town businessman and a solid citizen. But he is still haunted by his criminal past. This is the major theme of O. Henry's story. Ben Price is on Jimmy's trail because of the three bank jobs Jimmy committed after being pardoned and released from prison. We cannot wish our past sins away. Jimmy is stuck with his record and his reputation, just as he is stuck with that incriminating suitcase full of his one-of-a-kind safecracking tools. 

Many criminals find it difficult to "go straight." They become "career criminals" or so-called "recidivists." Jimmy is on his way to becoming a recidivist at the end of "A Retrieved Reformation" when Ben Price, who has observed Jimmy's noble sacrifice of all he had gained by reforming, gives him a sort of blessing and forgiveness in the surprise ending.

“Hello, Ben!” said Jimmy, still with his strange smile. “Got around at last, have you? Well, let's go. I don't know that it makes much difference, now.”

And then Ben Price acted rather strangely.

“Guess you're mistaken, Mr. Spencer,” he said. “Don't believe I recognize you. Your buggy's waiting for you, ain't it?”

This sort of thing is the exception rather than the rule. In O. Henry's story "The Cop and the Anthem," the character called Soapy decides to reform because of hearing a familiar church anthem after a series of failures to get himself arrested and sent to Riker's Island.

He would pull himself out of the mire; he would make a man of himself again; he would conquer the evil that had taken possession of him. There was time; he was comparatively young yet; he would resurrect his old eager ambitions and pursue them without faltering. Those solemn but sweet organ notes had set up a revolution in him....He would be somebody in the world. He would—

Soapy felt a hand laid on his arm. He looked quickly around into the broad face of a policeman.

“What are you doin' here?” asked the officer.

“Nothin',” said Soapy.

“Then come along,” said the policeman.

Before he became a popular writer, O. Henry served three years in a state prison for embezzlement. He never got over the experience. He wrote under an assumed name and lived in fear of having it become widely known that he was an ex-felon. He had seen a lot and learned a lot during his years in a tough state prison. He had seen men go out and come back in. They couldn't make it in the outside world because of their records. How could they explain to a potential employer what they had been doing during those missing years? They had developed bad records, bad reputations, bad habits, bad friends, antisocial attitudes. O. Henry himself had become an alcoholic who was reputed to drink two quarts of whiskey a day. Naturally he died at an early age. He was only forty-seven.

The "roadblock" to retrieved reformation in Jimmy Valentine's case was his criminal record. It is symbolized in the story by the big suitcase full of specially designed safecracking tools. As soon as Jimmy gets back to his room after his release from prison, he retrieves that suitcase from its hiding place. It is mentioned numerous times throughout the story. He has it with him when he goes into his fiancee's father's bank. It has now become a burden he would like to get rid of forever. But, ironically, it helps him save the little girl and at the same time exposes him as a master safecracker wanted by the law. It is only by a near miracle that Jimmy is able to retrieve his reformation.