man looking around a room followed by a ghostly woman

The Furnished Room

by O. Henry

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Who are the characters in "The Furnished Room," and what are their backgrounds?

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Most of the characters in “The Furnished Room” by O. Henry are from “the red brick district of the lower West Side,” and most of them are either apartment lenders or people of the theatrical profession. Henry describes those who work in theatre at the opening of the story this way:

Homeless, they have a hundred homes. They flit from furnished room to furnished room, transients forever—transients in abode, transients in heart and mind. They sing "Home, Sweet Home" in ragtime; they carry their lares et penates in a bandbox; their vine is entwined about a picture hat; a rubber plant is their fig tree.

The lines are meant to convey that the nature of the theatrical profession is transient, or fleeting and ever-changing. In a literal respect, Henry is observing that those who work in the profession are literally always staying in new temporary abodes as they travel and perform. In a more figurative respect, Henry is implying that actors can have no real sense of home because their hearts and minds are always catering to a counterfeit identity and counterfeit narrative: they adopt the identities of the characters they portray and live out pretend experiences. Due to their “transient” states of being, character backgrounds are difficult to decipher. The “room furnishings” give brief insights into their backgrounds, but these must be inferred from descriptions of the room. For example, fingerprints on a wall demonstrate that unhappy children have tenanted there: “The tiny fingerprints on the wall spoke of little prisoners trying to feel their way to sun and air.” As the young man, who is the protagonist of the story, contemplates the furnishings of the room, he finds evidence of tenants who have behaved violently or ragefully in the room. Mrs. Purdy tries twice to give a positive view of the room’s history, mentioning that the famous actress “B’retta Sprowls” stayed there for her honeymoon, but the evidence of angry tenant after angry tenant tells a very different tale. Henry writes:

It seemed that the succession of dwellers in the furnished room had turned in fury—perhaps tempted beyond forbearance by its garish coldness—and wreaked upon it their passions. The furniture was chipped and bruised; the couch, distorted by bursting springs, seemed a horrible monster that had been slain during the stress of some grotesque convulsion. Some more potent upheaval had cloven a great slice from the marble mantel. Each plank in the floor owned its particular cant and shriek as from a separate and individual agony. It seemed incredible that all this malice and injury had been wrought upon the room by those who had called it for a time their home; and yet it may have been the cheated home instinct surviving blindly, the resentful rage at false household gods that had kindled their wrath. A hut that is our own we can sweep and adorn and cherish.

The young man surmises that the previous tenants have taken out their dissatisfaction with a life of unceasing transience on the room itself. Evidence of this inference can be found where Henry mentions “the resentful rage at false household gods that had kindled their wrath.” Here, he is referring to folklore about spirits that would provide protection, hearth-warmth, and necessary provisions to a family across generations if they were fed in daily acts of worship. In other stories, such household gods would merely stave their wrath if fed. These kinds of entities are common in lore across many cultures, including in Russian folklore. The tenants of Apartment 12 have felt “resentful rage” when staying in the third room because they have experienced the “wrath” of the “false household gods” of the temporary abode; they have not sacrificed themselves to the gods of the proverbial home and are therefore tormented.

Further evidence of character background must be inferred from the circumstances surrounding the seeking of temporary housing. The fact that they each had to seek temporary housing shows that these characters were in some sense “homeless” for a time. For instance, Mr. Doyles, the old man whose kids pay for him to stay in the room, is obviously unwelcome in his own children’s homes. Why could they not put him up for a while? Was he so disconnected from his children that they would rather pay for him to stay in a decaying apartment than have him stay with them? Sprowls and Mooney, the famous theatrical couple, apparently had no better place to spend the happiest night of their lives. Did neither of them have a bed of their own to turn into the “marriage bed,” a center of intimacy and a place where two become one? And then there is Eloise Vashner, who may have stayed in the room with the single purpose of ending her life there. Did she feel such a stranger in the world that she felt she had no choice but to leave it? Finally, we must consider the young man, who also ends his life when he realizes he will never again find the woman who was his living, breathing home.

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