After Twenty Years Questions and Answers

O. Henry

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting After Twenty Years questions.

What is the moral of the story?

I believe it would be safe to say that the theme of O. Henry's story "After Twenty Years" is an old one: Crime Does Not Pay. O. Henry contrasts two different characters who have two different philosophies and two different value systems. Bob is greedy and materialistic. He wants to make a lot of money, buy a lot of things, enjoy a life of luxury, and display his success conspicuously. And he doesn't care how he gets the money as long as he gets it. Jimmy is conventional and conservative. He wants a good steady job that is socially useful. He wants a home and a family. The two men's different philosophies take them on different paths until they finally meet again after twenty years. Jimmy has a good steady job that is useful to society. He likes his work and he has security. When he retires, he will receive a pension for the rest of his life. Bob, on the other hand, has made a lot of money through crooked means. Still, he has no home, no family, and no security. The money hasn't really done him much good. He has spent some of it on a scarf pin with a big diamond and a pocket watch decorated with small diamonds. It is important to him to have other people look at him, to admire and envy him. He is always on the run, and it is probably inevitable that he will end up in prison sooner or later. In O. Henry's story, Bob discovers that he can't even trust the man who used to be his best friend. Bob probably has no close friends because he never stays in the same place long enough to acquire friends, and also because he is not the kind of man that decent people would want to have as a friend. His flashy lifestyle has made him conspicuous, easy to identify wherever he goes. His career ends when he is led off to jail. If he has a whole string of crimes charged against him in Chicago and elsewhere in the West, he could be spending a long part of his life in state prisons. Crime really does not pay.

The theme of "Crime Does Not Pay" is also to be found in at least two of O. Henry's other most popular stories, "A Retrieved Reformation" and "The Ransom of Red Chief." In "A Retrieved Reformation," Jimmy Valentine falls in love and plans to get married, but he realizes that his whole shady past has come back to haunt him, regardless of how much money he stole and how highly regarded he might be in the underworld as a professional safe-cracker. In "The Ransom of Red Chief," the two kidnappers are forced to pay to get rid of their victim. O. Henry served time in prison for embezzlement, and he associated with professional criminals after his release. He must have come to realize that crime ultimately catches up with its perpetrators.

How are "Silky" Bob and Jimmy Wells described?

O. Henry's description of Bob's face by the light of his match has a double purpose. First, it is necessary to enable Jimmy to recognize Bob as the man who is wanted by the Chicago police. Second, it gives the author an opportunity to tell the reader what Bob looks like. We must remember that both these men have changed a lot over the past twenty years. They are not a couple of kids talking to each other, but men who are both approaching middle age and who have acquired great stores of "street smarts" in their respective vocations. They are two mature men standing in the same spot where they said goodbye as mere boys twenty years before. The "white scar" near Bob's right eyebrow serves a dual purpose as well. It helps Jimmy to identify him as the wanted man, and it suggests that Bob is a tough customer who has been in fights during his years in the West.

O. Henry's description of Jimmy's manner of patrolling his beat is largely intended to show that he has been a cop for a long time. This fact has had an indelible effect on him. He has become a cop through and through, a man who is dedicated to upholding the law. The reader will not discover until the end of the story that the policeman is in fact Jimmy Wells, but the reader will have formed a strong impression of Jimmy by that time and will understand why he found it impossible to let his old friend Bob escape from the long arm of the law. We do not know exactly how long Jimmy has been a cop, but it could have been almost twenty years. He was twenty years old when he and Bob said goodbye in "Big Joe" Brady's restaurant. That would be about the age when he would be thinking about finding good steady employment. O. Henry's description of the policeman in the opening paragraphs suggests a man who has had many years of police work and is thoroughly set in his ways as well as content in his role and duties as a uniformed cop.

Is "After Twenty Years" similar to any other stories?

Jimmy Wells and "Silky" Bob are so much like the tortoise and the hare in Aesop's well-known fable that it almost seems as if O. Henry wanted to write a modernized version of the story with human characters. In the fable the two animals engage in a foot-race. The tortoise moves slowly, of course, but advances steadily. The hare takes off with a burst of speed and leaves his opponent far behind. But then the hare decides to take a break, since the poor tortoise does not seem to have a chance of winning. When the tortoise catches up with him, the hare speeds off again and then takes another break. In the end the tortoise beats the hare to the finish line because he passes him while he is sound asleep. The moral of the fable, which is spelled out at the end in some editions of Aesop's Fables, is "Slow and steady wins the race."

Bob has been like the hare for the past twenty years. He tells the policeman, whom he doesn't recognize in the dark as Jimmy:

"You see, the West is a pretty big proposition, and I kept hustling around over it pretty lively."

Bob is obviously some kind of a crook, probably a confidence trickster. He has to keep "hustling over it pretty lively" for at least two reasons. One is that he cannot stay in any place where he has made enemies by victimizing the local inhabitants. The other reason is that he is in chronic danger of being arrested, either for a local crime or for one he committed elsewhere at an earlier date. These two truths about the life of crime have been dramatized in at least three excellent movies: Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Paper Moon.

Bob describes Jimmy in the following terms:

"He was a kind of plodder, though, good fellow as he was....A man gets in a groove in New York."

In the end it is Jimmy, the plodder, the tortoise, who wins the race. He has a good steady job. He is probably married and has a home and a family. Bob has a diamond scarf pin and a diamond-studded watch, but he is being hauled off to prison, where he might have to serve multiple sentences for multiple crimes. Whatever money he has managed to accumulate, if any, will probably go to pay a lawyer. Bob has nobody to care about him, which is why he has traveled a thousand miles to see his old friend Jimmy.

Who is Jimmy Wells?

O. Henry shows great literary skill in his depiction of Jimmy Wells. By introducing him as a cop in uniform patrolling his beat, O. Henry actually succeeds in disguising him. The man we see twirling his club and trying doors along the block has obviously been a beat cop for many years, and I visualize him as nearly forty years old, probably somewhat overweight, sure of himself, satisfied with his job--in fact, a typical middle-aged beat cop, often called a flatfoot. Readers think they know him, but they don't! We don't connect him with Jimmy Wells, because we learn from 'Silky' Bob that Jimmy was only twenty years old when they parted twenty years earlier; and we cannot help visualizing Jimmy as a young man who is just beginning to find his way in life. Even 'Silky' Bob cannot realize that this stereotypical uniformed New York Cop he is talking to is his old pal Jimmy Wells. If Bob is deceived, it is not surprising that the reader should be deceived as well. It never occurs to us that this cop, of all people, could be Jimmy Wells. One of the ways in which we are deceived is by O. Henry showing the cop trying doors along the way. We naturally assume that this is his beat and that he is just doing his job. He is not there to meet anybody. But the fact is that he is there on the scene both because it is his beat and because he intends to meet his old friend at exactly ten o'clock. When Bob looks at his fancy watch, he tells the cop that it is three minutes to ten. Jimmy was early. That is likely why he was taking his own leisurely time about approaching the site of their rendezvous. All the description of the club-twirling is intended to show that Jimmy has been a cop for a long time and that he is walking in a leisurely fashion. O. Henry has to introduce Jimmy, one of his principal characters, without really "introducing" him. That was a problem the author handled beautifully. His stories are worth studying just for the many little details he handles so adroitly.