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After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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"After Twenty Years" Characters

The main characters in “After Twenty Years” are Jimmy Wells, “Silky” Bob, and the plainclothes police officer.

  • Jimmy Wells is a forty-year-old New York City patrol officer, described by Bob as a true friend but “kind of a plodder.” After recognizing his old friend as a wanted man, Jimmy has Bob arrested.
  • “Silky” Bob is a thirty-eight-year-old Chicago criminal who is proud of his successful career. He remembers Jimmy fondly but ultimately underestimates and fails to recognize him.
  • The plainclothes police officer impersonates Jimmy Wells in order to arrest Bob after being tipped off by Jimmy himself.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Jimmy Wells

Jimmy Wells is a New York City police officer. He is forty years old at the time when the story takes place and joined the police force at some point during the previous twenty years. In worldly terms, he has not been particularly successful, as he is still a patrolman and has not risen through the ranks of the police force. However, he is presented in the story as a dignified and respectable figure and a commanding presence in the city where he keeps order.

The reader hears most about Jimmy’s character from Bob, at a point in the story when neither Bob himself nor the reader knows that Jimmy is listening. Bob describes Jimmy as “the finest chap in the world.” He later says that Jimmy is true and "stanch" and would never forget his appointment or his friend, even after twenty years. Bob’s only criticism of Jimmy is that he is “kind of a plodder,” without the initiative and ambition to make something of his life.

The reader’s view of Jimmy is likely to be similar to Bob’s but not exactly the same. Jimmy does not appear to be a particularly imaginative or dynamic character, but he is good at his job, in the sense of being adept as well as being trustworthy. He quickly recognizes Bob, both as his old friend and as a wanted man, and prevents himself from doing or saying anything that would allow Bob to recognize him, despite the fact that Bob is expecting to meet him there. In this sense, he surpasses his old friend in shrewdness. He carefully checks that Bob intends to remain in the same place for at least half an hour before leaving him. This demonstrates that, although Jimmy is sentimental enough to avoid arresting his old friend personally, his first concern is with performing his duty as a police officer and ensuring that the criminal has no opportunity to escape. He therefore stands as an archetype of the public official who is able to entertain personal feelings but finally puts his duty before every other consideration.

“Silky” Bob

Bob is presented first as a man who has returned to New York at the age of thirty-eight, having spent the last forty years making a fortune somewhere in the West. It is only at the end of the story that the reader discovers he is not a gold miner or a rancher, but a career criminal. There are, however, some hints of his dishonesty earlier in the story. One is his sudden, nervous speech upon being approached by a police officer. As Jimmy walks toward him, he speaks quickly, explaining his presence before the other man has a chance to ask any questions. Although his explanation happens to be true, the fact that he offers it so quickly without being asked is a sign of nerves, perhaps of habitual guilt. It may also be due to his nervousness in the presence of a police officer that he fails to recognize Jimmy, as he is concentrating on the uniform and not the face.

Bob is clearly proud of his success, despite the criminal context in which it has been achieved. He has great affection for Jimmy, and respect for his loyalty and strength of character, but is inclined to patronize him as too slow and unambitious to achieve as much in life as Bob has done. He talks to both Jimmy and the detective who arrests him about his career, and his egotism is “enlarged by success” as he does so. He wears a large diamond in his scarfpin and carries a handsome pocket watch, set with more diamonds. These symbols of his wealth and success accord with his tendency to boast about his career. He also has the sobriquet “Silky” Bob, which may refer either to the smoothness with which he operates or the luxury of his lifestyle.

The Plainclothes Police Officer

The second officer, who impersonates Jimmy Wells and then arrests Bob, is the most minor character in the story and is given little individuality. Both Bob and the reader initially assume that he is in fact Jimmy Wells, the man Bob has been describing. Although he differs physically from Jimmy, in ways that Bob eventually notices, the officer seems to have the same dutiful outlook on life. His moralizing remark that time “sometimes changes a good man into a bad one” suggests that he shares Jimmy’s views and values, as one might expect a fellow police officer to do.

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