After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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What is the tone and mood of "After Twenty Years" by O. Henry?

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The tone and mood of "After Twenty Years" by O. Henry are predominantly somber and reminiscent, punctuated with an air of uncertainty and mystery. The story chronicles the divergent lives of two old friends, Bob, a criminal, and Jimmy, a police officer, who meet after two decades. The suspenseful nighttime setting, along with the surprising twist at the end, contribute to the intrigue of the narrative, while the underlying melancholy stems from the realization of their irrevocably changed lives.

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The overall tone and feeling of O. Henry’s “After Twenty Years” is somewhat somber and reminiscent. It follows the two men, Jim and Bob, whose lives have vastly diverged over time, and it chronicles their departure and how their lives have ended up going very differently.


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they were once good friends, they haven’t seen each other in twenty years and they are now on the opposite ends of life and the law. Bob has become a wanted criminal, while Jimmy is now a police officer. Jimmy, realizing that their lives have so drastically diverged, can’t bring himself to reveal who he is to his friend, and he departs before letting Bob know that he did in fact show up for their scheduled rendezvous. Jimmy later sends another officer to apprehend Bob. Overall, the feel is very somber as the friends realize they’re no longer the same people, and the way their lives have turned out will keep them separated forever.

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The general mood is one of uncertainty. Who are these men? Just what they are up to? There must be more going on here than meets the eye, surely. This is a deliberate strategy on Henry's part. He knows that if there's an air of mystery about the piece, then the reader will be all the more keen to find out what happens next. That the story takes place at night, when there aren't too many people around, merely adds to the intrigue.

Personally speaking, I didn't see the twist ending coming when I first read the story. But even those who have still pay fulsome tribute to Henry's skill at setting up the surprise denouement. Here as elsewhere, he hooks the audience in, using a light, unthreatening tone for this purpose. The action may be shrouded in mystery but there's nothing menacing about the tone Henry uses; this isn't Edgar Allan Poe we're dealing with here. We sense there's something going on beneath the surface, but even if we don't quite know what it is, we're fairly certain it's not something that's going to give us nightmares.

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The setting of O.Henry's "After Twenty Years" creates a mood of mystery and secrecy. The story takes place at "10 o'clock at night, but chilly gusts of wind with a taste of rain in them had well nigh depeopled the streets."  Most people wouldn't be out on a night like this as the quote points out, so the story is immediately shrouded in mystery.  Jimmy is checking doors but "suddenly slowed his walk" when he sees a man leaning against the door of the hardware store.  The fact that Jimmy "suddenly slowed" indicates surprise and that he is seeing something out of the ordinary, adding tension to the story. 

Silky Bob lights his cigar revealing "a pale, square-jawed face with keen eyes and a little white scar near his right eyebrow."  This description clearly creates mystery and suspense, each detail slowly revealing a face that has a scar.  Most people don't have scars on their faces, so this specific detail increases suspense. 

O. Henry is sympathetic toward both characters, but especially toward Jimmy the police officer.  His description of Jimmy at the beginning of the story indicates a man who is responsible and takes his duties seriously.  He checks every business door as he completes his rounds with a "watchful eye."  O. Henry also describes him as a "fine guardian of the peace."  This portrayal indicates a respect for this character's dedication, even on such an inhospitable evening.

O.Henry's depiction of Bob is not as complimentary, although he does highlight Bob's loyalty.  Most men, especially if involved in crime, would not keep such an appointment after twenty years.  However, this also points to Bob's arrogance which ultimately sets up the surprise ending.

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What kind of mood does O. Henry create in "After Twenty Years"?

O. Henry has written a moralistic story in which he contrasts the lives of criminals and law-abiding citizens. The members of the underworld may seem smarter if they make a lot of money and avoid getting caught, but in the long run it is the honest, industrious people who enjoy the better lives. "Silky" Bob has apparently made a lot of money in his life of crime, and yet he seems like a lonely man. People like him have to keep on the run. They have no roots. They make a lot of enemies but not very many friends. He tells the uniformed officer whom he doesn't recognize as his old friend Jimmy Wells:

"You see, the West is a pretty big proposition, and I kept hustling around over it pretty lively."

As he approaches middle-age, Bob is a wanted man in danger of going to prison. Jimmy, by contrast, has a wife, a family, a home, a steady and respectable job, and peace of mind. O. Henry's story resembles Aesop's fable about "The Tortoise and the Hare," in which the tortoise wins their race because he is "slow and steady." When Bob is told that he is under arrest and being sent back to Chicago for questioning, he may suddenly realize that he has chosen the wrong way of life and that it is probably too late for him to do anything about it. 

Bob and Jimmy represent two types of men--those who want to live in luxury without working and those who are do the world's work and uphold civilization. Jimmy felt compelled to have his old friend arrested because he was an honest citizen who believed in law and order. Bob and Jimmy may have been good friends twenty years ago, but they would not have remained friends if Bob had stayed in New York and continued to follow a life of crime and indulgence. They are not really friends anymore. They are actually erstwhile friends--that is, men whose relationship is based on the fact that they used to be friends. Their friendship was deteriorating even though they never even saw each other during those twenty long years.

We feel some sympathy for "Silky" Bob because so much of the story is told from his point of view. We think he came to New York to see Jimmy, but he may have come there because he knew the police were looking for him in Chicago. At the same time, we cannot fault Jimmy for having him arrested by the other officer. O. Henry has mitigated the severity of Jimmy's betrayal in several ways. For one thing, the arrest is made politely. Bob and the plain clothes man are actually walking arm in arm. It seems possible that Bob will get off rather lightly. The arresting officer tells him:

"Chicago thinks you may have dropped over our way and wires us she wants to have a chat with you. Going quietly, are You? That's sensible."

Bob is wanted for questioning. He has not been charged with any crime. He is a smooth talker and may be able to talk his way out of whatever jam he is in. He has money too; he can afford to hire a good lawyer. 

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What kind of mood does O. Henry create in "After Twenty Years"?

The mood in “After Twenty Years” is ironic, reflective and wistful.

Mood is the emotion of a story.

This story is about two friends who agree to meet in twenty years.    They both keep their date, but one turns out to be a criminal and one turns out to be a cop.  The cop has to decide whether or not to turn his friend in. He finally decides he has to do something, so he gets another cop to arrest his friend and sends him a note.

The mood is reflective, and remembering.

"Twenty years ago to-night," said the man, "I dined here at 'Big Joe' Brady's with Jimmy Wells, my best chum, and the finest chap in the world.

It is also somewhat wistful, because things do not always stay the same.  People change.  We cannot control the change, but we sometimes have mixed feelings about it.

Finally, there is a high note of irony in the fact that one person became a cop and another a crook.

 Well, well, well! --twenty years is a long time. The old gone, Bob; I wish it had lasted, so we could have had another dinner there.

Ironically, the cop has to decide whether he wants to be a good cop or a good friend.  Will he honor his old friend’s memory, or do his duty?  He decides he has to turn him in, but he can’t do it himself.

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