Who is telling the story in “After Twenty Years?”  

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The story is told by an anonymous narrator writing in the third-person. The narrator confines himself to two points of view, that of Jimmy Wells and that of "Silky" Bob. We do not know that the uniformed policeman described in the opening is Jimmy Wells. We only find that out at the end. The opening paragraph is a good example of the way the story will be handled by the anonymous narrator.

THE POLICEMAN ON the beat moved up the avenue impressively. The impressiveness was habitual and not for show, for spectators were few. The time was barely 10 o'clock at night, but chilly gusts of wind with a taste of rain in them had well nigh depeopled the streets.

When this policeman sees the man standing in the doorway of a hardware store, which has been closed for hours, he approaches him. The meeting is described by the anonymous narrator from the policeman's point of view, even though "Silky" Bob does most of the talking. An example of the policeman's point of view is the following:

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.

These descriptive details all enable the policeman to identify Bob as the man wanted by the Chicago police, but the reader does not realize this at the time. The policeman leaves after a brief conversation. Then we are left in "Silky" Bob's point of view until the very end of the story. An example of Bob's point of view is the following:

About twenty minutes he waited, and then a tall man in a long overcoat, with collar turned up to his ears, hurried across from the opposite side of the street. He went directly to the waiting man.

It is appropriate that O. Henry should tell his story from the points of view of Jimmy and Bob because it is all about two old friends meeting after twenty years. Bob is not described from the point of view of the plainclothesman who makes the arrest. That would be redundant after Bob has been thoroughly described from the point of view of the uniformed policeman, who turns out to have been Jimmy Wells.

The narrator cannot be called "omniscient." His objective voice is limited to describing such details as cannot be handled in the dialogue. For example:

There was now a fine, cold drizzle falling, and the wind had risen from its uncertain puffs into a steady blow. The few foot passengers astir in that quarter hurried dismally and silently along with coat collars turned high and pocketed hands.

The story is full of examples of how O. Henry handles all the exposition in the dialogue. Here is a sample:

“Twenty years ago tonight,” said the man, “I dined here at ‘Big Joe’ Brady's with Jimmy Wells, my best chum, and the finest chap in the world. He and I were raised here in New York, just like two brothers, together. I was eighteen and Jimmy was twenty. The next morning I was to start for the West to make my fortune...."

This is Bob doing the talking, but we are in the uniformed policeman's point of view. O. Henry does a truly excellent job of introducing Jimmy Wells without really introducing him. Jimmy was there at the hardware story, which used to be "Big Joe" Brady's restaurant in order to keep the appointment he had made with Bob twenty years before. But Bob doesn't give Jimmy a chance to introduce himself. He immediately starts talking smoothly.  

“It's all right, officer,” he said, reassuringly. “I'm just waiting for a friend. 

Bob can't see Jimmy's face because the street is so dark. When Bob lights his cigar, Jimmy can see Bob's face very clearly by the matchlight, but Bob is blinded by the light of his own flaring match. At that point Jimmy decides not to introduce himself to his old friend because he recognizes Bob as the man who is wanted by the Chicago police.