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After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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The setting and atmosphere in "After Twenty Years."

Summary:

The setting of "After Twenty Years" is a dark, windy night in New York City, creating a mysterious and suspenseful atmosphere. The story unfolds on a nearly deserted street, enhancing the sense of isolation and anticipation as the characters' long-awaited reunion approaches.

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What is the atmosphere in "After Twenty Years?"

In the short story "After Twenty Years," the author O. Henry creates an atmosphere of mystery and uncertainty to set up the surprise ending. He does this by describing the weather, the time, and the lack of pedestrians.

The time was barely 10 o'clock at night, but chilly gusts of wind with a taste of rain in them had well nigh depeopled the streets.

The vicinity was one that kept early hours. Now and then you might see the lights of a cigar store or of an all-night lunch counter; but the majority of the doors belonged to business places that had long since been closed.

From these descriptions, the reader is immersed in a setting of a street that is dark, windy, and almost deserted. This creates the atmosphere of mystery that the author is trying to convey. When the policeman sees the lone man standing in the doorway of a shop, the atmosphere of mystery is heightened, for the reader becomes curious about who this solitary person in such a bleak setting could be. To add to the atmosphere, the description of the stranger in the doorway is framed by the lighting of a match, so that the policeman catches only a glimpse of the man's face. The author adds further to the mystery by explaining that the man has a slight scar on his face and a scarfpin and watch that suggest that he is very rich. It's impressive that with a few well-placed words and phrases, O. Henry is able to create such a mysterious and atmospheric setting for this fascinating and surprising story.

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What is the atmosphere in "After Twenty Years?"

The atmosphere of "After Twenty Years" establishes the mood of mystery and suspense that sets up the story's surprise ending. It is night as the story opens. The cop is on patrol and the weather is pretty unpleasant. It's cold, the wind is blowing, and the gales are flecked with a little rain. The part of the city where the cop is walking is mainly shrouded in darkness. Most of the properties in the area belong to businesses that have long since closed for the day. As such, there aren't too many people around, except for the occasional patron of a small restaurant.

All of the various ambient elements provide the perfect setting for the story. The darkness and relative isolation of the location allow us to concentrate more easily on the two characters and their fateful meeting. And by setting the story at night and in inclement weather, Henry is cleverly hinting that the meeting won't have a very happy ending for at least one of the two men.

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What is the setting and atmosphere of "After Twenty Years", and how do they affect the story?

"After Twenty Years" is set in New York City in the early part of the twentieth century. It is a neighborhood of shops and offices. It is dark and the streets are nearly deserted. The area has the cold, lonely "alienated" feeling of a big city's business district when all the stores are closed and the workers have all gone home. The narrator tells us that it is almost ten o'clock at night. The weather is cold, windy, and wet.

There was now a fine, cold drizzle falling, and the wind had risen from its uncertain puffs into a steady blow. The few foot passengers astir in that quarter hurried dismally and silently along with coat collars turned high and pocketed hands

The man standing in the doorway of the hardware store looks somewhat sinister. Pedestrians might cross the street to avoid having to pass in front of him. It is not surprising that the uniformed beat cop should stop to talk to him, although we learn late in the story that the cop is the man's old friend and is keeping an appointment they made twenty years ago.

Anyone who is acquainted with the paintings of Edward Hopper, the American realist, would recognize this scene as one that Hopper himself would appreciate for the feeling of loneliness it evokes. It is reminiscent of Hopper's famous painting "Nighthawks," in which three people are sitting around a counter late at night as seen from the outside through the big plate-glass window. This is a big, cold, tough American city which has a strange charm of its own as a result of all aesthetic considerations having been ignored in favor of maximizing profit from each square foot of space. It is a city where friendship is rare, which makes the relationship between the man in the doorway and the man he expects to meet seem that much more important to each of them. We learn later that the man in the doorway has come a thousand miles to meet his old friend, which suggests how rare it is to find friendship in an towering metropolis where friendship is forgotten in the struggle for existence.

The place where the waiting man is standing used to be a restaurant called "Big Joe" Brady's. We can imagine that such a brightly lighted place was loud and noisy. The patrons were mostly men. They were all talking and laughing, having a good time, even singing. Now it has been turned into a store that sells the hardest kinds of merchandise--and there is no light, no sound of talking, or laughter or music. The policeman's job is to see that all the doors in the neighborhood are locked shut because big cities are always preyed on by the criminal element at night.

Trying doors as he went, twirling his club with many intricate and artful movements, turning now and then to cast his watchful eye adown the pacific thoroughfare, the officer, with his stalwart form and slight swagger, made a fine picture of a guardian of the peace.

There is a sharp contrast between the man in the doorway and uniformed cop when they meet. The civilian looks suspicious. The cop is, as O. Henry states, "a fine picture of a guardian of the peace," a symbol of law and order. These two men were friends twenty years ago when they both were young--but they could not be friends now. They have gone down two separate roads in all that time, and the passage of years has changed them. 

The man called Bob is standing inside the entrance to the hardware store because of the bad weather. This makes him look is hiding and might have some criminal intention. Why would a man be standing in a doorway in a dark, cold, nearly deserted neighborhood? The bad weather enables the plainclothes detective to keep his face nearly concealed so that Bob won't realize he isn't Jimmy Wells.

About twenty minutes he waited, and then a tall man in a long overcoat, with collar turned up to his ears, hurried across from the opposite side of the street. He went directly to the waiting man.

The reader is also fooled into believing that this newcomer must be Jimmy Wells because he had no idea that the uniformed cop had been the man Bob was waiting to meet. Who else would it be arriving almost on time and seeming to know a lot about Bob from the old days?

“Bless my heart!” exclaimed the new arrival, grasping both the other's hands with his own. “It's Bob, sure as fate. I was certain I'd find you here if you were still in existence. Well, well, well!—twenty years is a long time. The old restaurant's gone, Bob; I wish it had lasted, so we could have had another dinner there. How has the West treated you, old man?”

Bob and the reader both receive the same shock when the two men reach the brightly lighted corner drugstore and Bob learns that his best friend has turned him in. It was too much to expect a friendship to last for twenty years.

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Where is the setting of "After Twenty Years"?

The story is set in New York at 10 o’clock at night, during the early twentieth century.

The story is set at night.  In fact, we know that it is ten o'clock. Also, it was published in 1906, so it probably takes place around then.  We know that the men are meeting in New York City.

He and I were raised here in New York, just like two brothers, together. I was eighteen and Jimmy was twenty. The next morning I was to start for the West to make my fortune.

The story action is happening on a street.  When the story starts, Bob is standing in front of a hardware store that used to be a diner.  He has agreed to meet his friend Jimmy there.  It is a very old date, but Bob knows Jimmy will keep it.  In fact, Jimmy does keep it.  Bob talks to Jimmy for most of the story.  He just doesn’t know he is talking to Jimmy, because Jimmy doesn’t identify himself.  Jimmy is a cop, and he is suspicious of Bob. 

The neighborhood might have been nice once, but it is a bit sketchy now.  Jimmy was on patrol when Bob showed up, out of habit.  He watches him, in the doorway of the darkened hardware store.

The vicinity was one that kept early hours. Now and then you might see the lights of a cigar store or of an all-night lunch counter; but the majority of the doors belonged to business places that had long since been closed.

Since most of the stores on the street are not open, it is not well lit.  Jimmy and Bob talk, and then Jimmy leaves.  He goes and gets  another cop who comes back and pretends to be him.  This cop talks to Bob until they walk to a corner, where there is a drug store with brighter lights.  Then Bob realizes he is not talking to Jimmy.  The cop then tells him he is under arrest, and gives him a note from Jimmy explaining that he recognized him but did not want to arrest him himself.

Setting the story in a big city at night makes it more believable.  You can see how people walking by would not notice or care about what goes on between two men having a conversation in the dark, or would not want to get involved.  Also, things change a lot in cities, maybe more than small towns.  The story of the cop and the crook is ironic, but the big city backdrop makes it classic.

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Where is the setting of "After Twenty Years"?

There is little in the story "After Twenty Years" to indicate its time period. We know it is a time period of electric lights. Although the action happens in New York City and the streets are mentioned, we are not told whether horses and carriages or cars are going down the streets, or both. Only "foot passengers" are mentioned, and the officer is patrolling his beat on foot. The fact that the story mentions that the drug store was "brilliant with electric lights" may indicate that electric lights in stores were somewhat new. Electricity came to New York City around 1884 and became more and more widespread over the succeeding decades. The fact that the man went "West," rather than specifying a specific state, such as California, may hint at a time of rail travel rather than automobiles. The officer mentions that the police communicated to Chicago via a "wire," meaning a telegraph. Telegraphs were used into the 1920s and 1930s because they were cheaper than placing long distance telephone calls. These clues suggest that the late 1800s or early 1900s was the setting for this story. But the best way to nail down a more specific time period is to consider the story's author, O. Henry. He published most of his stories from 1906 to 1910. Since he seems to have made no effort to identify any particular time period in the story, we could assume he meant it to be contemporary for his time, so we can place the story in the first decade of the 20th century. 

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Where is the setting of "After Twenty Years"?

O. Henry does not specify where his story is taking place. However, when 'Silky' Bob is talking to the policeman without recognizing him as his old friend Jimmy Wells, Bob reveals the name of the city.

The next morning I was to start for the West to make my fortune. You couldn't have dragged Jimmy out of New York; he thought it was the only place on earth. 

In those days New York meant only Manhattan. Now the name of the city applies to a much larger area called Greater New York. 'Silky' Bob is standing in the doorway of a store in the central part of Manhattan. The city is booming because of its great location, its harbor, and the influx of immigrants from Europe. The district has apparently changed a lot. Twenty years ago Bob and Jimmy had said goodbye right there at a restaurant called "Big Joe" Brady's. According to the policeman, the restaurant had been torn down five years ago. No doubt New York was undergoing many rapid changes because of population growth.

Bob has been traveling all over the "West" in those twenty years. What they called the West in those days is what is now called the Midwest. Bob probably never traveled any farther west than Chicago in Illinois. The change in the site where the two men are standing, and the changes in the district as a whole, symbolize the passage of time as well as the changes that have taken place in the men's characters. Their characters have evolved as they have adapted to their environments. According to Bob:

A man gets in a groove in New York. It takes the West to put a razor-edge on him.”

Jimmy has certainly gotten into a groove in New York. He wears a uniform, patrols the same streets, probably has a wife, children, and a home. Bob has become hardened, street-smart, and furtive. He has probably talked to dozens of cops over the years and thinks he knows just how to handle them.

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How does the setting in "After Twenty Years" shape the characters?

Another way of looking at how setting shapes the characters in "After Twenty Years" is to consider O. Henry's creative imagination. After all, the characters are not real people but mental creations, or illusions. In another story, "The Furnished Room," the narrator, O. Henry himself presumably, writes:

Hence the houses of this district, having had a thousand dwellers, should have a thousand tales to tell...

This suggests that O. Henry must have been in the habit of inventing stories to suit the look and mood of particular settings. He may have seen a man standing in the darkened doorway of a hardware store and wondered what such a well-dressed, middle-aged man would be doing there at that hour. Probably waiting for someone. But who? An old friend. But why a hardware store and not a restaurant? Maybe the restaurant had been torn down a long time ago and replaced by a row of shops. The man in the doorway seems to be a little furtive, as if he wants to keep out of sight. Maybe he is wanted by the law. What if a cop came along? What if that cop just happened to be the man he was waiting for, but he didn't know he had become a cop during the years in which they had lost contact. What would the cop do if he recognized the man in the doorway as his old friend? Maybe he would get another cop to arrest him. This could lead to the creation of 'Silky' Bob, the wanted man; to Jimmy Wells, the old friend who had become a cop; and to the plainclothes detective who makes the arrest that Jimmy is unwilling to make himself. 

O. Henry was a prolific writer. He had to be, because he wrote for newspapers and was always under tight deadlines. He had to keep coming up with stories, rain or shine, drunk or sober. He must have gotten many of his story ideas, and hence many of his characters, from settings such as Greenwich Village, where he created a couple of young female aspiring artists and a temperamental German painter; or Washington Square, where he saw a bum sleeping on a bench under a mound of Sunday newspapers on a cold autumn morning. O. Henry had a exceptionally fertile creative imagination. As he says in "The Furnished Room," the houses in a certain district could have a thousand tales to tell. He believed that every person in the city of New York had a story to tell, which meant that he could invent four million stories to fit the city's population at the time. Only a writer like O. Henry could sense the possibility of four million stories--but if he could make a story out of a man standing in the darkened doorway of a hardware store, then four million stories would be a conservative estimate.

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How does the setting in "After Twenty Years" shape the characters?

The setting absolutely does shape the characters in "After Twenty Years" in this short story.  Of course, setting can be divided into two parts:  setting of time and setting of place.  Both of these are important to the characters of "the policeman" (Jimmy Wells) and "the waiting man" ("Silky" Bob).

First, let's look at the setting of time, especially in regards to the interval between meetings.  This is where the setting even goes back to the title.  Twenty years are significant.  During that time, "the policeman" (Jimmy Wells) has stayed in New York and obviously made a wonderful career in the NYC police department.  This implies that "the policeman" (Jimmy Wells) has become "a good man" during that time, trying to rid the city streets of evildoers.  For "the waiting man" ("Silky" Bob), the twenty  year interval has done something completely different.  "The waiting man" ("Silky" Bob) chose to leave New York City and move out west.  During that twenty years, something has happened to"the waiting man" ("Silky" Bob) that isn't good:  he is wanted by the law.  "The policeman" (Jimmy Wells) notices and sends a plainclothes cop to do the arrest.  The exchange is an interesting comment on the setting of time:

"You're not Jimmy Wells.  Twenty years is a long time, but not long enough to change a man's nose from a roman to a pug." 
"It sometimes changes a good man into a bad man," says the tall man. "You've been under arrest for ten minutes 'Silky' Bob."

The setting of place, of course, shapes the characters as well.  The two important general places of interest are New York City and the West.  How did these places shape the characters?  Well, "the policeman" (Jimmy Wells) was certainly shaped by the city of New York.  He has grown up, gotten a good job, and patrols his usual beat with dignity.  He has grown so loyal to the law and to New York City that he is willing to arrest his friend, "the waiting man" ("Silky" Bob) knowing that he is now "a bad man."  The only way "the policeman" (Jimmy Wells) takes the sting out of the arrest is by sending a plainclothes cop to do the job for him.  The West has shaped the specific character of "the waiting man" ("Silky" Bob). Bob now has a "small white scar near his right eyebrow" and is wanted by the law in Chicago.  Bob is no longer the "friend" he was to Jimmy Wells before the West got a hold of him.

In conclusion, we should also mention a more specific element of the setting of place that also shapes the characters:  "About that long ago there used to be a restaurant where this store stands."  It was in that restaurant that the two friends decided to meet at the same place twenty years later.  Sure enough, that is just where the two characters stand at that time.

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What words and phrases from "After Twenty Years" suggest the story's setting?

The short story "After Twenty Years" by O. Henry tells of two old friends who have arranged to meet at a certain time and place after a 20 year gap in time. They made the promise when they were young, and now that the twenty years have passed, they both have come to honor the agreement. Jimmy Wells has become a policeman, while his former friend Bob has become a criminal. They meet at the time appointed, but Jimmy does not want to arrest his friend, and so he writes a note to Bob and sends another policeman to deliver it.

The setting of a story is the time and place in which the story happens. Details of setting may include the location, the weather, and background specifics important to the story.

This story is very short, but O. Henry nevertheless gives plenty of clues about its setting. In longer stories, there may be several settings, but because of its brevity, this story takes place on a single street late at night.

In the opening paragraph, O. Henry sets the time as "barely 10 o'clock at night." The weather is cold, with "chilly gusts of wind with a taste of rain in them." To indicate that the streets are nearly empty, the author uses the word "depeopled." The policeman, Jimmy Wells, is moving up an avenue. A few establishments are open, such as "a cigar store" and an "all-night lunch counter," but most places have "long since been closed."

Jimmy Wells meets Bob in front of "a darkened hardware store," and this is the place where most of the rest of the story takes place. After Jimmy Wells leaves, the author writes that the weather becomes more severe: "There was now a fine, cold drizzle falling, and the wind had risen from its uncertain puffs into a steady blow."

Finally, Bob and the policeman Jimmy has sent to arrest him walk up to the corner where there is a drugstore "brilliant with electric lights." This is where Bob recognizes that the man with him is not his friend Jimmy Wells.

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What are the key details of the setting in "After Twenty Years"?

The most important details for the setting of "After Twenty Years" are the street, the doorway, the darkness, and the weather. O. Henry creates a picture of a New York street at night when almost all the little business establishments are closed. That is why he sets the time as approximately ten o'clock. Shops that might have remained open until six or seven would be locked and dark by now. The corner drugstore is brilliantly lighted with the new invention of electric lights, but it is locked up for the night. The lights have only been left on as a form of advertising. 

The vicinity was one that kept early hours. Now and then you might see the lights of a cigar store or of an all-night lunch counter; but the majority of the doors belonged to business places that had long since been closed.

O. Henry excelled at such descriptions. He specifies that the weather is cold, windy, and wet. This explains not only why the neighborhood is so nearly deserted, but why Bob is standing deep inside the doorway of the closed hardware store. Bob wants to stay as warm and dry as possible. He also has an unlit cigar in his mouth. He can't smoke a cigar in the rain. He might even have a hard time lighting it in the wind. But it seems to Bob, as well as to the reader, that the cop stops to talk to him because he looks a little sinister loitering in a darkened doorway. The cop is really Jimmy Wells, the man Bob is waiting for. And Jimmy only stops because he has that appointment made twenty years earlier.

The darkness and the cold, wet weather will also explain why the plainclothes officer whom Jimmy will ask to arrest his old friend is able to disguise his appearance by covering much of his face with his overcoat collars turned up and his hat turned down. He is not really protecting himself from the weather but from being seen too clearly by Bob, who would realize that he wasn't his old friend but a complete stranger. Jimmy couldn't have sent another uniformed cop like himself to make the arrest. Bob would have been alerted. He would have given the new cop a different name, of which he undoubtedly had many to choose from. A uniformed cop could not have won Bob's confidence the way the plainclothes detective did.

The setting also establishes a mood of loneliness and anomie which is common to all big cities at night. During the day a neighborhood may be bustling with all kinds of traffic and activity. But late at night many neighborhoods are forlorn and deserted. There is always danger after dark. This is when the burglars and robbers come out of hiding to prey on people. This is why the honest citizens need the protection of a man like Jimmy Wells. Bob too seems to belong to this setting. He is a criminal. He expects to be questioned by the uniformed beat cop who stops in front of his doorway. No doubt Bob has dealt with countless other such policemen over his years of underworld activities. Both these men, Bob and Jimmy, belong in the setting and to the setting.

The pervasive darkness enables Jimmy to talk to Bob without being recognized. It also enables the plainclothes police officer to approach Bob and lead him off arm in arm without being recognized as a perfect stranger. The drugstore blazing with the new electric lighting exposes the arresting officer's face, just as the lighting of the cigar had exposed Bob's; but it is too late for Bob to do anything but submit to his arrest. It seems as if, once he emerges from his darkened doorway, he is like a sea creature out of its shell.   

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