After Twenty Years Questions and Answers
by O. Henry

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When does "After Twenty Years" take place?

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Rebecca Hope eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There is little in the story "After Twenty Years" to indicate its time period. We know it is a time period of electric lights. Although the action happens in New York City and the streets are mentioned, we are not told whether horses and carriages or cars are going down the streets, or both. Only "foot passengers" are mentioned, and the officer is patrolling his beat on foot. The fact that the story mentions that the drug store was "brilliant with electric lights" may indicate that electric lights in stores were somewhat new. Electricity came to New York City around 1884 and became more and more widespread over the succeeding decades. The fact that the man went "West," rather than specifying a specific state, such as California, may hint at a time of rail travel rather than automobiles. The officer mentions that the police communicated to Chicago via a "wire," meaning a telegraph. Telegraphs were used into the 1920s and 1930s because they were cheaper than placing long distance telephone calls. These clues suggest that the late 1800s or early 1900s was the setting for this story. But the best way to nail down a more specific time period is to consider the story's author, O. Henry. He published most of his stories from 1906 to 1910. Since he seems to have made no effort to identify any particular time period in the story, we could assume he meant it to be contemporary for his time, so we can place the story in the first decade of the 20th century. 

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