After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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What are six examples of foreshadowing in "After Twenty Years"?

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The story opens with a scene of a police officer patrolling the streets late at night (at a time when the streets are deserted). The police officer spots and walks up to a man who will later be revealed as "Silky Bob." On an initial reading, you might think this encounter is incidental, but when rereading this story with hindsight, you find that this scene is critical in setting up the story's twist ending: the police officer was actually Bob's old friend Jimmy Wells all along.

In addition, note how Bob is described as dressing very ostentatiously, with lavish displays of wealth. He also makes comments such as, "A man gets in a groove in New York. It takes the West to put a razor-edge on him." It's not clear how he has earned his wealth, but this kind of statement suggests that it is ill-gotten. The story's ending will establish Bob as a criminal.

As a third example, consider Bob's conviction, as he speaks with the policeman, that his friend will show up. He tells the policeman, "I know Jimmy will meet me here if he's alive, for he always was the truest, staunchest old chap in the world. He'll never forget." Of course, Bob does not realize that the policeman is actually his old friend. Including this passage establishes an expectation on the reader's part that this meeting will be featured in the story. Of course, O. Henry fulfills that implicit authorial promise, albeit not in the matter that the reader might expect.

Later, after the policeman departs, the person we believe to be Jimmy arrives. However, Bob himself notes how much Jimmy has changed, saying that he seems to have grown several inches taller since their last meeting. This observation foreshadows the later revelation that the newcomer is not actually Jimmy.

One line that alludes to the false Jimmy's real motivations reads, "The man from the West, his egotism enlarged by success, was beginning to outline the history of his career. The other, submerged in his overcoat, listened with interest."

There's something striking about this image of a one-sided conversation and what it implies about the scene (although you can only read into this as subtext after you've already completed the story). Keep in mind, the false Jimmy is actually a police officer, while Bob is a criminal. One can easily imagine the police officer passively listening to gain more information on Bob's own criminal dealings.

Finally, there is the revelation that the man Bob believes to be Jimmy isn't Jimmy at all (Bob finally decides that his face is too different). However, over the course of their conversation, this false Jimmy has revealed a great deal of knowledge as to the two men and their arrangement to meet up (knowledge he should not have had access to if he was simply an imposter). This revelation—that this Jimmy Wells is actually a fake—after they'd already had this lengthy conversation suggests that the false Jimmy must know or be connected with the real one. This assumption is soon confirmed by the story's last twist.

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O. Henry's ironic story of the reunion of old companions in "After Twenty Years" contains some foreshadowing, or rather subtle hints, that the friends have changed greatly and these changes may affect their reunion.  But, the surprise of the ending is that the reader does not know which two characters will meet each other at the designated corner.  Here are six examples of the subtle foreshadowing of O. Henry:

  1. 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.  [This hints that the policeman is proud of his position in law enforcement.]
  2. When about midway of a certain block the policeman suddenly slowed his walk. In the doorway of a darkened hardware store a man leaned, with an unlighted cigar in his mouth. [This suggests that the policeman may have recognized someone.]
  3. The man in the doorway struck a match and lit his cigar. The light showed a pale, square-jawed face with keen eyes, and a little white scar near his right eyebrow. [When the match lights up the man's face he is seen by the policeman, but the policeman remains in the shadows.]
  4. The light showed a pale, square jawed face with keen eyes, and a little white scar near his right eyebrow. His scarf pin was a large diamond, oddly set. [Along with the scar, the pin is something that is clearly distinguishable about the man, so the policeman may recognize him from a description distributed to police stations.]
  5. "We figured that in twenty years each of us ought to have our destiny worked out and our fortunes made, whatever they were going to be.” [These words are ironically true and hint at the destiny of the speaker as he talks to the policeman.]
  6. "I'll be on my way. Hope your friend comes around all right. Going to call time on him sharp?”
“I should say not!” said the other. “I'll give him half an hour at least. If Jimmy is alive on earth he'll be here by that time. So long, officer.”  [The officer asks if the stranger "will call time" on his friend so he can figure how much time he has to have the man in the doorway captured.]

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