A Retrieved Reformation

by O. Henry

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In "A Retrieved Reformation," why did Jimmy visit Elmore and what occurred there?

Quick answer:

After being released from prison, Jimmy embarks on a crime spree, and it is within that context that he originally comes to Elmore. However, upon seeing Annabel Adams, he falls in love and determines to put his criminal past behind him. He changes his name, opens a shoe business, and even manages to become engaged to Annabel Adams herself. However, before the story concludes, he will employ his safe-cracking skills again, rescuing a child trapped in a vault.

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The story “A Retrieved Reformation” is a classic redemption narrative, and its protagonist, Jimmy Valentine, is an archetype of a classic American fictional character. Jimmy is a goodhearted safecracker who is transformed by love into a model small-town businessman, an O. Henry version of the proverbial leopard who changes his spots.

Directly after being released from a short prison term, Jimmy goes to see an old associate and retrieve his safecracker tools, equipment well-known to the detective always on Jimmy’s trail. Jimmy then embarks on a crime spree, taking him across Missouri and eventually over the Arkansas border to the small town Elmore.

Jimmy comes to Elmore because it’s close to the railroad for an easy getaway if needed, and such an ordinary place that Ben Price and the authorities wouldn't suspect that he’d be hiding out there. O. Henry implies subtly that Jimmy intends at first to rob the Elmore Bank, before he finds out the girl he’s just fallen in love at first sight with is the banker’s daughter. From that moment, we’re told, he “looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man.” The man he became, right then and there on the spot, was Ralph Spencer, newly arrived to open the town’s first specialty shoe store.

At this point, we don’t know for certain what Jimmy’s true motives are. Has he really experienced such a profound change of heart, or is he just deceiving Annabel and her family to gain close access to the bank? We don’t know for sure until we get to read Jimmy's letter at the twist ending, which is what makes the writing and characterization so effective.

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"A Retrieved Reformation" opens with Jimmy Valentine's release from prison, after which he quickly resumes his old criminal life as a safe-cracker, embarking on a crime spree. It is in the context of this crime spree that Jimmy comes to Elmore (and note that his first sight of Annabel Adams comes as she is stepping into the doors of the bank, a specific detail which suggests that he had been in the process of preparing his next theft). However, upon seeing Annabel Adams, he falls intensely in love and determines to get a respectable job and give up his criminal ways.

He proceeds to take up a new identity. Now calling himself Ralph Spencer, he successfully sets up a shoe business in town and becomes a respected member of the local community, even becoming engaged to Annabel Adams. In all respects, Jimmy has put his criminal past behind him. Yet, as the story approaches its conclusion, Jimmy will find a use for his old safe-cracking skills once more, albeit in a radically different context than they had been used in the beginning of the story.

In the story's critical scene, a young girl gets locked in a newly acquired bank vault, with no one able to get the door open. Aware that doing nothing would lead to the child's death, Jimmy proceeds to break into the vault and rescue her himself, well aware that these actions would expose his criminal skills to the people observing.

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Jimmy went to Elmore because he was looking for a new location from where he could carry on with his safecracking business. Note that Jimmy has a habit of moving out of places where he has already committed a crime, perhaps so he can evade the police. Also, new places probably offer him the anonymity he needs to organize his safecracking escapades without arousing the suspicion of people. In fact, the policeman Ben Price, states that Jimmy’s “long jumps and quick getaways” among other habits, enables him to be a “successful dodger of retribution." Before Jimmy’s move to Elmore, a series of safe burglaries that bore his trademark safecracking style had taken place in Richmond, Logansport, and Jefferson City.

When he arrives at Elmore, Jimmy starts a shoe business to use as a front for his burglaries. The shoe business thrives and offers Jimmy a stability that he finds desirable. He also makes the acquaintance of the beautiful Miss Annabel Adams and falls in love with her. The two are even engaged to marry. Socially, he is well-liked and respected by many of the townspeople. He then decides to quit safecracking in order to settle down with Annabel Adams, whose father owns the Elmore bank. He is so contented with his life in Elmore that he does not crack any safes for over a year. However, a few days before Jimmy and Annabel’s wedding, an incident occurs that disturbs Jimmy’s life. At the bank, a new vault is unveiled, a ceremony to which many people are invited, Jimmy included. At the ceremony, one of Annabel’s nieces is accidentally locked inside the vault. This forces Jimmy to crack the safe to rescue the trapped girl. Through this single act of kindness, Jimmy exposes his safecracking skills to the assembled group of people.

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