After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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What is a character sketch of Jimmy Wells in "After Twenty Years"?

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Jimmy Wells in "After Twenty Years" is depicted as a conscientious and moral police officer faced with a conflicting decision between his duty and his friendship with Silky Bob. Despite their long-standing friendship, Jimmy's commitment to his role as a policeman takes precedence, leading him to arrange for Bob's arrest rather than doing it himself, reflecting his internal conflict and sensitivity. His actions and the professional demeanor he maintains throughout the story underscore his dedication to law enforcement and personal integrity.

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Jimmy had to make a difficult choice between two painful alternatives. On the one hand, he could have gone on his way and let Silky Bob escape from the law. In that case, Jimmy would have felt guilty for failing to do his sworn duty as a police officer. On the other hand, he could arrest Bob or cause him to be arrested. In that case he would have felt guilty for betraying his old friend.

Jimmy is not the viewpoint character of the story, but O. Henry is such a good writer that he makes us realize that Jimmy was experiencing many mixed feelings about Bob and about himself. Bob is the viewpoint character and does a lot of talking about himself. We understand that he is in a sentimental mood. He wants to see his old friend and talk about old times. He is a stranger in New York, but this city used to be his home. Jimmy's feelings are hidden, just as he himself is practically invisible throughout the story. Bob fails to recognize him because it is a fact that a uniform tends to obscure the wearer's identity. We see a cop and not the individual. This is probably the reason for uniforms, including military uniforms.

Jimmy is especially invisible in this story because the New York cops must have worn navy-blue uniforms and it was nighttime on an unlighted street. Jimmy would have blended into the darkness. Then Jimmy does not reveal himself or make the arrest personally; he passes that job on to another man. Jimmy seems like a sensitive man, judging from the note he has the other man hand to Bob. No doubt Jimmy was sorry for doing what he did, but he knew he would be equally sorry, if not sorrier, if he didn't do it. He was in a lose-lose situation. All of us have to make such choices in our lifetimes.

Jimmy had to make a decision, and he was guided by the training he had received at the police academy. He had been taught that as a police officer he could not be guided by personal feelings but that he had to uphold the law as he had sworn to do. He was taught this rule of conduct because his teachers knew that sooner or later he would need to remember it.

O. Henry rarely seemed terribly sympathetic to cops, but in this story he shows that his famous compassion for humanity includes cops along with the rest of humanity.

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When an author portrays a character, he uses what he says about the character, what other characters say about him/her, and the actions and words of the character himself.  

What the author says: We find out at the end of the story that Jimmy Wells is a policeman.  However, O'Henry describes him in the first sentence of the story.


"The policeman on the beat moved up the avenue impressively.  The impressiveness was habitual and not for show, for spectators were few." (page one)

Jimmy makes a fine impression of a police officer even though there is no one to impress.  It is just the way he is, and he is not putting on airs.  O'Henry also tells us that he was,

"...twirling his club with many intricate and artful movements, turning now and then to cast a watchful eye down the pacific thoroughfare" (page one)

 This tells the reader that he has been at his job for a while because he has developed an art of handling his billy club.  A billy club, in case you do not know, is the stick that police officers carry when they walk their territory (beat).  He is also very observant.  This is reinforced later in the story.  O'Henry continues by telling the reader that Jimmy,

"....with is stalwart form and slight swagger, made a fine picture of a guardian of peace." (page one)

This shows Jimmy as a sturdy, robust character who looked as a policeman should look.

What other characters say about him: When Silky Bob is telling the police officer about Jimmy, he describes him as ,

"...the finest chap in the world." (page one)

"....raised here in New York." (page one)

"I was eighteen and Jimmy was twenty." (page one)

"You couldn't have dragged Jimmy out of New York; he thought it was the only place on earth." (page two)

"...he was always the truest, stauchest old chap in the world." (page two)

"He'll never forget." (page two)

"He was a kind of plodder though, good fellow as he was." (page two)

So Jimmy was two years older than Silky Bob.  He had been raised in New York and loved the city.  However, he did not crave the excitement that Silky Bob did, and he generally just lived day by day, taking a rather humdrum existence over the excitement that Silky Bob craved.  However, he is a good friend and a fine person.  If he could make the appointment, he would be there. When Silky Bob realized that the man who meets him is NOT Jimmy, he says,

"Twenty years is a long time, but not long enough to change a man's nose from a Roman to a pug." (page 3)

So we know that Jimmy has a Roman or long, straight nose.

The characters actions or words: Jimmy shows that he is observant when he write in his note to Silky Bob.

"When you struck the match to light your cigar, I saw it was the face of the man wanted in Chicago." (page 3)

He shows that he is a good friend when he writes,

"Somehow I couldn't do it myself, so I went around and got a plainclothesman to do the job." (page three)

He also shows that he is a moral, law-abiding person because he does have his friend arrested.  He cannot ignore it.

Bob said that if Jimmy could be there, he would because he was a good friend,and Jimmy was there.  He also says in the note.

"I was at the appointed place on time." (page three)

My copy of the story is off the internet.  The pages may differ from your version.  However, I have tried to put everything in order, and you should find the quotes relatively easily.

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What is the characterization of Bob and Jimmy Wells in the story "After Twenty Years" by O. Henry?

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 show 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 to identify him as the wanted man, and it suggests that he 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 his character and personality. 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 either to arrest his old friend or to let his him 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 in law enforcement and is thoroughly set in his ways as well as content in his character as a uniformed cop.

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What is the characterization of Bob and Jimmy Wells in the story "After Twenty Years" by O. Henry?

Both men are steadfast friends, but Bob is a criminal and Jimmy is a cop.

Both Bob and Jimmy are described physically.  First, Jimmy is described.

[The] officer, with his stalwart form and slight swagger, made a fine picture of a guardian of the peace

The Bob is described.

The light showed a pale, square-jawed face with keen eyes, and a little white scar near his right eyebrow

There is a stark contrast between Bob and Jimmy, yet they both came from the same place.  In a way, the story is about different paths we all have.  Jimmy chooses to stay behind and follow the straight and narrow, while Bob is ambitious and hopes to make his fortune.  Bob actually falls into the American metaphor of going west and becoming rich.  Sometimes that involved less than virtuous activities.  Jimmy becomes the law, and Bob becomes the law-breaker.

Bob arrives first.  Jimmy makes his way in a leisurely way.  Is this because he suspects that Bob might have become less than savory over the years? 

Bob seems nice enough.

"It's all right, officer," he said, reassuringly. "I'm just waiting for a friend. It's an appointment made twenty years ago. Sounds a little funny to you, doesn't it?

He kept the appointment.  So did Jimmy, but Jimmy still lived nearby.  It was more a stretch for Bob. Why did Bob return?  It shows that he was willing to risk going back where he may be recognized, because he wanted to be faithful to his friend.

Bob describes Jimmy as a "plodder" and says he never would have left New York.  Being a cop is very important to Jimmy.  His “impressiveness was habitual and not for show” and he walks down the street checking doors to make sure they’re locked.  He cares about his neighborhood and his role.  Yet he also cares about his friend.  He cannot arrest him himself, so he gets another cop to do it.  He is not willing to break the law and let his friend go, but he has not the heart to arrest him himself.

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What is the characterization of Bob and Jimmy Wells in the story "After Twenty Years" by O. Henry?

Jimmy is honest and responsible.  This is clear for several reasons.  As a policeman, he is charged with ensuring the safety of the storefronts on his beat.  Although it is rainy and clearly a night where it would be more comfortable to be inside, Jimmy walked his beat "trying doors as he went."  He does this work with style and confidence, twirling his club "with many intricate and artful movements,"  yet he is a humble man as he is a patrolman and content with his lot in life.  He is also a man of integrity.  This is clear because of his actions.  First, he fulfills his obligation to meet his friend Bob after twenty years; second, realizing Bob is a criminal, he arranges to have him arrested by another officer since Bob is a friend from years ago.  Clearly, Jimmy takes his job responsibilities seriously.  Bob even describes Jimmy is the policeman as "the truest, staunchest old chap in the world."

Bob is showy.  He wears a diamond scarf pin and pulls out a watch set with diamonds.  He is boastful, bragging about all the hustles he pulled out West.  Bob is descibed by the narrator as egotistical because he begins bragging about his successes to the second policeman who poses as Jimmy Wells.  Even so, he is also a loyal friend, made clear by the fact he returned to the site of the restaurant he and Jimmy agreed to meet at twenty years ago to see how each had fared in life.

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