A Retrieved Reformation

by O. Henry

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Why does Jimmy Valentine become Ralph D. Spencer in "A Retrieved Reformation"?

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Jimmy wants to settle down and give up his life of crime. But ever since he was released from prison, he's been up to his old tricks, cracking open numerous safes across the Midwest. So if Jimmy's going to settle down and become a respectable citizen, he's going to need a whole new identity.

Walking around Elmore, Arkansas, Jimmy realizes that the town doesn't have a specialist shoe store. He's determined to exploit this niche and establish himself as the newest businessman in town. But his new venture won't be under the name of Jimmy Valentine—because the forces of law enforcement are out looking for him—but Ralph D. Spencer. Also, Jimmy's fallen for a young lady whose father is the owner of the town's bank, and he wouldn't want his prospective father-in-law to find out that his daughter's going steady with a notorious safe-cracker.

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When Jimmy Valentine arrives in a small town in Elmore, Arkansas, for a potential safe-cracking job, he looks into the eyes of Miss Annabel Adams, daughter of the town's bank owner. Jimmy falls instantly in love, so he assumes a new identity, and abandons his life of crime in his attempt to earn Annabel's love.

After he encounters the pretty, innocent Annabel, Jimmy walks to the Planters' Hotel and registers as Ralph D. Spencer. He asks the clerk how the shoe business is in town.

Mr. Ralph Spencer, the phoenix that arose from Jimmy Valentine's ashes--ashes left by the flame of a sudden and alternative attack of love--remained in Elmore, and prospered. He opened a shoe-store and secured a good run of trade.

Mr. Spencer becomes a social success. Also, he wins the heart of Annabel Adams, who continues to charm him. He has truly become rehabilitated; he has finally taken the warden's advice to "Brace up, and make a man" of himself.

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Why was Jimmy Valentine determined to reform in "A Retrieved Reformation"?

In "A Retrieved Reformation" there are several factors that all contribute to Jimmy Valentine's determination to reform. For one thing, he realizes that it is getting more difficult for him to stay out of prison and more difficult to get out of prison once he is in. He is not elated but somewhat disappointed when he gets his pardon.

There the warden handed Jimmy his pardon, which had been signed that morning by the governor. Jimmy took it in a tired kind of way. He had served nearly ten months of a four year sentence. He had expected to stay only about three months, at the longest.

Then the next day his friend Mike Dolan tells him they had a hard time getting him pardoned.

“Sorry we couldn't make it sooner, Jimmy, me boy,” said Mike. “But we had that protest from Springfield to buck against, and the governor nearly balked. Feeling all right?”

Jimmy feels he is building up a long record and is in danger of becoming a loser like most of the men he met in prison. But the big turning point in his life is when he falls in love with Annabel Adams at first sight.

A young lady crossed the street, passed him at the corner and entered a door over which was the sign “The Elmore Bank.” Jimmy Valentine looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man. 

Jimmy opens a shoe business in the town of Elmore, Arkansas and starts to prosper. He changes his name to Ralph Spencer. He finds that the brains and personality that have served him so well as a criminal can also be used to make him successful as a businessman once he goes straight. He becomes engaged to Annabel and is welcomed by her family. He has quickly become an important member of the community. He likes the feeling of being accepted by honest citizens and not having to be continually running and hiding from the law.

His realization that his life as a career criminal is becoming more precarious, his love for Annabel Adams, and his success as an honest businessman all make Jimmy determined to reform. He knows that the innocent Annabel could never love him if she knew he was a criminal. He decides to get rid of his  set of deluxe burglar tools and lead an honest life. He writes to an old cronie to whom he is giving the suitcase full of tools:

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. 

For a few tense moments it looks as if Jimmy's decision to go straight was made too late; but Ben Price has seen him rescue the little girl trapped in the bank vault and understands that Jimmy has become a reformed man. When Jimmy greets him, expecting to be arrested and to lose everything he has gained in the past year, Ben Price tells him:

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

And Ben Price turned and strolled down the street.

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In "A Retrieved Reformation," why did Jimmy Valentine go to Elmore?

In a rather subtle way, O. Henry shows that Jimmy Valentine is coming to the realization that he is getting to be too well-known in the area around Indiana where he usually commits his safecracking crimes. This is indicated by the fact that he usually got "sprung" from prison in a few months because of his many connections, but when the story opens he has already been serving ten months in prison for a job he pulled in Springfield, Indiana. The Warden seems to know all about Jimmy, including his modus operandi and his social and political connections. The following jocular dialogue by the Warden is revealing:

“Oh, no,” laughed the warden. “Of course not. Let's see, now. How was it you happened to get sent up on that Springfield job? Was it because you wouldn't prove an alibi for fear of compromising somebody in extremely high-toned society? Or was it simply a case of a mean old jury that had it in for you? It's always one or the other with you innocent victims.”

Then Mike, who runs the restaurant and rooming-house where Jimmy has kept a room, explains:

“Sorry we couldn't make it sooner, Jimmy, me boy,” said Mike. “But we had that protest from Springfield to buck against, and the governor nearly balked. Feeling all right?”

Mike seems to know all about Jimmy's activities, and this suggests that he talks about Jimmy with all the low-life characters who frequent his restaurant. Jimmy wants to keep a low profile, but it is becoming impossible to do so in this region. There is also the probability that his nemesis Ben Price, a detective who works for an agency that provides protection for banks, will be coming after Jimmy again. It was Ben Price who was responsible for Jimmy going to prison for the Springfield job.

So Jimmy decides to move to an entirely different area, set up a legitimate business as a "front," and continue to burglarize safes in a virgin territory. He chooses the town of Elmore, Arkansas at random. He has no special reason for moving to that particular town, but his choice shapes his destiny. He falls in love at first sight with the beautiful Annabel Adams and decides to "go straight" because he knows a girl of her high moral standards would never associate with a criminal. He changes his name to Ralph Spencer and opens a shoe business. He is surprised to find that he is very successful as a businessman. He soon becomes engaged to Annabel and is on his way to being a prosperous small-town family man with a wide circle of respectable friends.

But Ben Price traces Jimmy to Elmore with the intention of arresting him for the four safecracking jobs he pulled after getting out of prison. Ironically, Jimmy "retrieves" his reformation by using his custom-designed safecracking tools to rescue a little girl who has accidentally gotten locked in Annabel's father's bank vault. O. Henry seems to know something about the art of safe-cracking. He spent about three years in a state prison for embezzlement and associated with all kinds of career criminals even after his release. Ben Price is so impressed by the noble sacrifice Jimmy is making in revealing his identity and his obvious safecracking expertise that he decides against making the arrest.

“Hello, Ben!” said Jimmy, still with his strange smile. “Got around at last, have you? Well, let's go. I don't know that it makes much difference, now.”

And then Ben Price acted rather strangely.

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

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