A Retrieved Reformation

by O. Henry

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How does Jimmy Valentine evolve in "A Retrieved Reformation"?

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In "A Retrieved Reformation," Jimmy Valentine undergoes a significant transformation. Initially, he is a committed criminal, returning to safecracking immediately after his release from prison. However, after falling in love with a young woman named Annabel Adams, he changes his ways and becomes an honest businessman. Despite a brief return to his former self to save a child locked in a vault, Jimmy is ultimately reformed, a fact acknowledged by Ben Price, the detective who had been pursuing him.

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Jimmy Valentine is a hardened criminal who immediately returns to safecracking when he is released from prison; however, after he unexpectedly falls in love, Jimmy changes his behavior and attitudes and becomes an honest businessman. But, later he must return to his former self, although it is only briefly.

As the story begins, Jimmy Valentine is handed his pardon by the warden, who urges him to

"[B]race up, and make a man of yourself...Stop cracking safes, and live straight."

Jimmy rejects this advice with a bold-faced lie: "Me?....Why, I never cracked a safe in my life."

Then, as soon as he walks out of the prison, Jimmy takes a train to a small town near the state line. There he makes contact with an old friend, who has helped to procure Jimmy's pardon from the governor. After a brief conversation, Jimmy asks him for the key to his old room. Opening his room, where the detective's collar-button yet lies on the floor from the day on which he was arrested, Jimmy pulls from its hiding spot his suitcase containing the tools he has used to break into safes. With this case in hand, Jimmy is back in business.

But, one afternoon as Jimmy climbs out of the mail-hack in Elmore, Arkansas, something happens to the safe-cracker: He falls instantly in love with a beautiful young lady who comes out of the local bank. Later, when he learns that she is Annabel Adams, the daughter of the owner of the bank, Jimmy undergoes a change of heart about robbing this bank. For, he registers at the local hotel, telling the clerk that he is seeking a location to start a new business. When the clerk answers Jimmy's inquiries about the opportunities for opening a shoe store, the clerk informs him that there are no exclusive shoe-stores in town.
So, it is Ralph Spencer, "the phoenix that arose from Jimmy Valentine's ashes" that emerges from the hotel. He introduces himself to pretty Miss Annabel Adams and they grow to love each other so much that Ralph proposes marriage. Jimmy Valentine is reformed. And, since he no longer needs his tools, he decides to give his "kit of tools" to an associate from his past. 
On the day that he carries his suitcase from his old trade to travel to Little Rock and deliver them to his friend, detective Ben Price surreptitiously waits for him at the Elmore Bank, having traced Jimmy Valentine's whereabouts.

Instead of being able to depart early, Ralph Spencer is drawn into joining the family at the bank because this is the day that Mr. Adams wishes to show off his new safe and vault. Still, he has Dolph Gibson waiting for him with his horse and buggy so that Ralph can go to the railroad station afterwards. 
But, unfortunately for Ralph, Annabel's niece locks herself into the vault. Since this vault is set by a timed mechanism, no one can get this vault open. If they wait until it is mechanically released, little Agatha will suffocate. When Annabel turns to Ralph and asks, "Can't you do something Ralph--try, won't you?" the irony of this question is profound.

He looked at her with a queer, soft smile on his lips and in his keen eyes.
"Annabel," he said, "give me that rose you are wearing, will you?"

After he places the rose into his pocket, "Ralph D. Spencer passed from away and Jimmy Valentine took his place."

Pulling out his tools from the suitcase, Jimmy sets to work with his drill. In a quick ten minutes, Valentine opens the safe and Agatha emerges unscathed. Replacing his coat, Jimmy Valentine heads to the front door of the bank. However, he is accosted by Ben Price, the detective who has traced him to Elmore. With resignation, Jimmy says,

"Hello, Ben!...Got around at last, have you? Well, let's go. I don't know that it makes much difference, now." 

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

It is, indeed, a "retrieved reformation" that Jimmy/Ralph receives.

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In A Retrieved Reformation, how does the reader know that Jimmy Valentine has really changed?

The most convincing evidence that Jimmy Valentine has really changed and intends to reform completely is the fact that he gives up his specially designed burglar and safe-cracking tools. O. Henry describes these tools early in the story and keeps referring to the suitcase in which they are all kept.

Pulling out from the wall a folding-bed, Jimmy slid back a panel in the wall and dragged out a dust-covered suit-case. He opened this and gazed fondly at the finest set of burglar's tools in the East. It was a complete set, made of specially tempered steel, the latest designs in drills, punches, braces and bits, jimmies, clamps, and augers, with two or three novelties, invented by Jimmy himself, in which he took pride. Over nine hundred dollars they had cost him to have made at—, a place where they make such things for the profession.

These tools are essential to Jimmy's profession. Without them he would be helpless. But with them he is the foremost safecracker in his field. They symbolize his expertise and his reputation. They are also tangible proof of his guilt. Ben Price could have used them to prove that he had been responsible for three big recent jobs in Richmond, Logansport and Jefferson City. So when Jimmy gives up his tools he is giving up his career in crime. O. Henry puts this in writing when he has Jimmy write a letter to the old friend to whom he is giving all these special tools. The letter includes this passage:

Say, Billy, I've quit the old business—a year ago. I've got a nice store. I'm making an honest living, and I'm going to marry the finest girl on earth two weeks from now. It's the only life, Billy—the straight one. I wouldn't touch a dollar of another man's money now for a million. After I get married I'm going to sell out and go West, where there won't be so much danger of having old scores brought up against me. I tell you, Billy, she's an angel. She believes in me; and I wouldn't do another crooked thing for the whole world. 

Jimmy is reforming because he is "going to marry the finest girl on earth." Annabel Adams has made all the difference in Jimmy's life. He wants to be worthy of her. He tells his friend: "She believes in me; and I wouldn't do another crooked thing for the whole world." Jimmy's strong motivation for giving up his life of crime makes his intention completely credible. This is how the reader knows that he has really changed. If he just decided to quit safecracking without the motivation of love for a good woman, his decision would not be as convincing. Annabel Adams provides the strong motivation that will keep him on the straight and narrow for the rest of his life. They are about to be married. They will soon have their own home and children. He will be happy and will have to temptation to go back to the precarious life he was leading before he met Annabel.

Another indication that Jimmy is completely reformed is the fact that Ben Price does not arrest him when he has caught him redhanded in the bank with his incriminating suitcase full of tools. Ben Price is an expert at catching crooks and sending them to prison. If Ben Price believes in Jimmy's reformation and is willing to let him go ahead with his plans to marry and operate a legitimate business, that is further convincing proof that Jimmy has really and truly reformed.

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What are some examples of how Jimmy Valentine changed in "A Retrieved Reformation"?

When Jimmy Valentine was a criminal he had to hide from the world. He couldn't have any friends, and he had no prospects of marrying, even though he is described as exceptionally smart, good-looking, and likable. He becomes a changed man when he falls in love at first sight with Annabel Adams. He knows he can't win a girl like her without going straight. He had planned to use his shoe store in Elmore, Arkansas as a "front" while he continued to burglarize banks in this new territory. But when he falls in love he decides to give up his life of crime and become a respectable citizen. In a short time, because of his brains and personality, he is a successful businessman and is engaged to Annabel. Once he has been accepted by her and her family, he is accepted by the community. This is a big change for him because he has been such a loner out of necessity. He tried to remain invisible before, but now he is known and liked by everybody.

At the end of a year the situation of Mr. Ralph Spencer was this: he had won the respect of the community, his shoe-store was flourishing, and he and Annabel were engaged to be married in two weeks. Mr. Adams, the typical, plodding, country banker, approved of Spencer. Annabel's pride in him almost equaled her affection. He was as much at home in the family of Mr. Adams and that of Annabel's married sister as if he were already a member.

This paragraph shows the advantages of living a "straight" life, being a social asset rather than a predator. O. Henry adds more when Jimmy (Ralph Spencer) goes into the bank.

All went inside the high, carved oak railings into the banking-room—Jimmy included, for Mr. Adams's future son-in-law was welcome anywhere. The clerks were pleased to be greeted by the good-looking, agreeable young man who was going to marry Miss Annabel.

This is intended to show that Jimmy has not only been accepted by Annabel and her extended family, but that he has also been accepted by the entire town. O. Henry is using this transformation in Jimmy's behavior and lifestyle to illustrate his thesis that criminals have to live in fear of arrest and can associate only with other criminals, whereas an honest, enterprising and industrious young man can enjoy all the good things of life—marriage, family, friends, prosperity, and peace of mind.

In another of his best stories, "After Twenty Years," O. Henry uses Patrolman Jimmy Wells and con-man 'Silky' Bob to illustrate the same thesis: that honesty is the best policy, or crime does not pay. Jimmy Wells has a good job and probably has a wife, children, a good home, and a circle of friends. Bob has apparently made a little more money, but he is always on the lam. He has no wife, children or home, and he has to travel a thousand miles to meet his only friend. But it turns out that Jimmy Wells feels compelled to have him arrested and probably sent to prison for the past misdeeds which have finally caught up with him.

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