After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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What is the climax in "After Twenty Years" by O Henry?

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The climax in a story is the peak of emotional intensity. In "After Twenty Years" this peak is reached when Bob and the arresting officver arrive at the corner drug store which is brilliantly illuminated. Here Bob realizes that his companion can't be his old friend Jimmy Wells. He is shocked to realize he has been confessing his sins to a complete stranger. As O. Henry puts it:

The man from the West, his egotism enlarged by success, was beginning to outline the history of his career.

Then the actual climax is reached when the stranger tells him:

"You've been under arrest for ten minutes, 'Silky' Bob."

The plain clothes detective who makes the arrest hands Bob a note from his friend Jimmy. This contains some necessary information, but it is not the climax. It is more of an explanation of much of the entire story--something like a summation. Bob realizes that the policeman he had been talking to at the beginning of the story was actually his old friend Jimmy Wells and that Jimmy had remembered their appointment and had kept it. He also realizes that Jimmy had changed a great deal in the past twenty years, just as Bob had changed a great deal himself. The friendship between these two men, which had been so strong twenty years before, was only a ghost of what it had been. That is perhaps the point of the story: people change. Nothing lasts. Jimmy still cared enough about Bob to feel he could not arrest him personally, but his sense of duty was stronger than his sense of friendship. His note to Bob reads, not only like an apology, but like a final goodbye, a statement that they can no longer be friends because of the separate paths they have taken in life.

O. Henry never describes what sorts of crimes 'Silky' Bob has committed. The closest the author comes to acknowledging that Bob is actually guilty of serious crimes is in the sentence:

The man from the West, his egotism enlarged by success, was beginning to outline the history of his career.

Note that he was only "beginning." It was probably lucky for him that they reached the lighted drugstore windows as soon as they did. Otherwise he might have confessed too much. But O. Henry seems to have wanted to soften the magnitude of Jimmy's betrayal. The arresting officer only tells Bob:

"Chicago thinks you may have dropped over our way and wires us she wants to have a chat with you."

It may be that Bob will get off with just a long and serious interrogation, and perhaps a stern warning. "A chat" doesn't sound so bad. Jimmy's note only says that Bob looks like the "man wanted in Chicago." At this point Bob is only wanted for questioning. They don't call him 'Silky' Bob for nothing. The reader knows he is in trouble but suspects that he may be able to talk his way out of whatever jam he is in. No doubt O. Henry gives him the nickname 'Silky' Bob to suggest that he is not a violent criminal but a con artist.

O. Henry spent some years in prison for embezzlement. He learned a lot about crime and criminals from his life experiences in prison and afterwards when he got out and spent some time with criminal associates. His stories such as "A Retrieved Reformation," "The Cop and the Anthem," and "The Ransom of Red Chief" show his mixed feelings about the denizens of the underworld. In "After Twenty Years," the reader is not glad to see Bob arrested but feels sorry for him because he was betrayed by an old friend whom he had traveled a thousand miles to meet for dinner and for old time's sake.

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What is one reader reaction during the climax in "After Twenty Years" by O Henry?

Most readers would agree that the climax of "After Twenty Years" evokes pathos and surprise. That is, readers are saddened to learn that Bob has been arrested as a rather significant criminal since his arrest marks the end of a long friendship, and Bob will probably go to prison. And, they are surprised at the ending because it does not fit the usual sentimental endings of O. Henry.

While readers of O. Henry would not be surprised by the ironic reversal of the narrative at the climax because such irony is typical of his stories; on the other hand, that Bob is arrested and will be sent to Chicago where he will most likely do time in the state prison would surprise them as this is not the usual romantic ending.

Also, the ending is tragic for Bob and Jimmy, as well, since they sadly realize that their longstanding friendship has ended with disappointment and guilt. Bob experiences this tragic moment as he reads Jimmy's note:

....His hand was steady when he began to read, but it trembled a little by the time he had finished....I saw it was the face of the man wanted in Chicago. Somehow I couldn't do it myself.... 

Earlier, Jimmy has experienced this tragic moment when Bob lit his cigar, revealing his face with the white scar near his right eyebrow, a scar that identified him as "Silky Bob."

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