Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942
“After Twenty Years” first appeared in O. Henry’s second short story collection, The Four Million, published in 1906, alongside such famous stories as “The Cop and the Anthem” and what is perhaps the author’s best-known work, “The Gift of the Magi.” The story is highly characteristic of O. Henry both in its final twist and in its sentimental moralizing. Like most of the author’s stories, “After Twenty Years” was written in the last eight years of his life, after his release from prison, where he had served three years for embezzlement. Despite the light, amusing ironies of their endings, these stories have something of the didactic tone of the reformed convict, preaching that crime does not pay.
Apart from the unnamed police officer who arrests Bob at the end of the story, there are only two characters in “After Twenty Years”: Jimmy and Bob. The two men are intended principally as archetypes rather than as individuals. Jimmy symbolizes law and order, honesty, public duty, and slow, steady progress along a straight path. Bob is his polar opposite, dishonest, fast, and flashy in dress and behavior, ruthlessly pursuing success without thinking or caring about the law. The contrast between the two is established early. Before the reader knows who he is, Jimmy is seen walking along the avenue in an impressive manner, “a fine picture of a guardian of the peace.” Jimmy is not wealthy and has not made a material success of his life as Bob has. However, he is strong, confident, and commanding in his role as protector of public order.
Bob, by contrast, is leaning shiftily in a doorway. As soon as he sees a police officer approach, he is so nervous that he blurts out the story about the appointment made twenty years ago before Jimmy has said a single word. Throughout their conversation, Jimmy is laconic and unemotional, confining himself to matters of fact and brief questions, while Bob talks at length about Jimmy. There is an obvious irony here: Bob claims to have known Jimmy well and to remember him clearly, yet he fails to recognize the man standing in front of him, whom he was, after all, expecting to see. Jimmy, on the other hand, seems to have had no difficulty in recognizing his old friend. This is partly because Bob’s memories of Jimmy are all about his character, or an idealized memory of it. Although he has “got on” in a tough environment, whereas Jimmy has not, Bob is romantic and impractical in this respect. However, the difference in their attitudes is also partly to do with the fact that Bob is all too accustomed to having to explain himself to the police and unconsciously treats the conversation as an interrogation. Jimmy has no such reason to be nervous.
Bob is sentimental in the way he romanticizes his friendship with Jimmy, and Jimmy also displays a degree of sentimentality in his reluctance to arrest Bob himself. Sentiment is related to love, but it is love of the least heroic and most self-centered variety. Jimmy ensures that Bob will be punished and pay his debt to society but excuses himself from the painful duty of being the one who arrests his old friend. He makes no sacrifice and spares only himself in making this gesture. Jimmy, therefore, definitively chooses public duty over friendship. However, the reader has no notion of whether Bob would have sacrificed either his freedom or the lesser value of a successful criminal career to his friendship for Jimmy, and there is nothing in the story to suggest that he...
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would have done. His sentimental talk of Jimmy is on the same level as Jimmy’s sentimental avoidance of a personal confrontation. As far as Bob knows, however, he is running no great risk and making no particularly important choice.
The author gives the last word to Jimmy and does not allow Bob the opportunity to comment on whether he is angry with his old friend for betraying him or whether he thinks he has received his just deserts. O. Henry does not, as he sometimes does (in “The Gift of the Magi,” for instance,) address the reader directly to tell them what to think about the characters. However, since the characters themselves are so heavily symbolic, it would have been redundant to do so. Some readers will think that Jimmy Wells acted admirably, and others will not, depending on whether they value public or private loyalties the most.
A similar point may be made in literary terms, when considering O. Henry’s status and reputation as a writer. O. Henry is one of the best-known American short-story writers, but he has no prominent recent imitators. His style of story-writing, with the ironic final twist, has almost disappeared from the contemporary literary scene. The O. Henry Award is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the United States, but winners such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Munro now have higher literary reputations than O. Henry himself. This, however, is at least partly a matter of fashion, which changes in the same way as whether public virtue is generally preferred to private loyalty. Do readers value a clever, neat conclusion that “solves” the story like a puzzle, or would they prefer something more ragged and psychologically revealing? If the former, O. Henry is likely to be one of their favorite writers. In a literary climate where depth and realism are generally prized above neatness, however, “After Twenty Years” may often fail to find favor with readers, who think it too tidy and too glib in its conclusion.