After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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What is the style in O. Henry's "After Twenty Years"?

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The style O. Henry uses in "After Twenty Years" creates an almost cinematic feel via its use of a detached narrator. The story is mostly dialogue, and the slight amount of narration there is could almost be read as the stage directions in the script for a play or movie. Indeed, the only significant narration occurs in the first three paragraphs as the approach of Patrolman Wells to Bob is described, and then as Bob waits for his friend to appear after the policeman leaves. One could easily imagine the story as a one-act play or a short film.

The use of a detached narrator allows O. Henry to accomplish his surprise ending. The narrator cannot give away any details about the inner feelings or thoughts of either Bob or Jimmy. If he did, the fact that Bob is a wanted criminal and/or that Jimmy recognizes his friend from the beginning would be revealed, spoiling the surprise. Thus the narration reads like stage directions, simply describing the outward appearance of the scene but giving little insight into the inner thoughts of the characters. This technique also respects the reader enough to let him or her go back and pick up all the clues that were missed originally. No Sherlock Holmes-type explanation occurs at the end. Jimmy's letter stands on its own as the resolution of the story, leaving readers to develop an understanding of the characters' traits in light of the revelation provided at the end.

Although this story and O. Henry himself pre-date the era of talking films, it is fascinating to consider how O. Henry might have used his writing talent not just for short stories but for screenplays.

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This romantic/sentimental and melodramatic style of O. Henry's stories is certainly evident in "After Twenty Years."

The sentimental element enters early in the narrative as two friends have arranged to meet each other after having parted ways twenty years ago. One of the friends stands in the doorway of what was once the diner where the two men often ate, and when a policeman on his beat stops, the man says with characteristic O. Henry unwitting irony that he is waiting for the "finest chap in the world," who will be sure to come soon.

"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."

As it turns out, there is the incongruity of O. Henry's stories in this statement from "Silky" Bob because during his declaration he has unknowingly revealed his destiny with the light of his match, which shows his face and diamond scarf pin. Also, his old friend Jimmy, who is actually the policeman, does not arrest him then because he is too sentimental about his long friendship with Bob. Instead, he returns to the police station where he elicits the aid of a plain clothes policeman. 

So, the ironic reversal occurs as the plain clothes man's false identity is discovered and this man gives "Silky" Bob the note that informs him why Jimmy has not met him at the location of the old diner.

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What is the unique style of O. Henry's way of writing in "After Twenty Years"?

One might call this style the use of a twist or a surprise ending. O. Henry purposefully withholds the information that the policeman is Jimmy Wells, thus keeping Bob and the reader in the dark.

The reader and Bob only know what is presented in the text. Therefore, the reader and Bob find out the truth together at the end of the story. This style is the opposite of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the reader knows more than the characters. This is not the case in this story. In this story, what we have is best described as situational irony: a situation where the outcome is unexpected: Bob and the reader are surprised by the outcome together.

The policeman (Jimmy) and the narrator know more than the reader. And although the narrator is omniscient, the narrator withholds information so we can say that this is an unreliable narrator (an unreliable narrator can be one who doesn't know everything going on or one who does but withholds information).

We are given a clue that the plain clothes policeman is not Jimmy Wells when Bob notes how much "Jimmy" has changed:

"You've changed lots, Jimmy. I never thought you were so tall by two or three inches."

The unreliable narrator withholds information which leads to a situation where the ending is unexpected, a twist, a kind of situational irony.

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