After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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How does the point of view affect the meaning and emotional impact in "After Twenty Years"?

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This story seems to begin with a third-person limited omniscient point of view.  This means that the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of one character.  We do not get much of the cop's thoughts and feelings, but we do get a bit.  In the first paragraph, for instance, the narrator says that the cop looked "strong and important.  This was the way he always moved.  He was not thinking of how he looked."  After this, we do not hear about what the cop is thinking or feeling specifically, but we do seem to get details that he, a police offer, would notice: the shape and complexion of the waiting man's face, his distinctive scar, as well as the "large jewel in his necktie" and the "fine watch, covered with small jewels."  The shift from a limited omniscient perspective to a more objective point of view is, I think, purposeful.  It feels strange to get the cop's thoughts at first, and then not again—it is as though they are purposely being kept from us when he meets and speaks to the waiting man.  It is, in the end, a clue to the story's surprise ending.  

The waiting man says something pretty ironic when speaking with the cop.  Of himself and Jimmy Wells, he says, "'We thought that in twenty years we would know what kind of men we were, and what future waited for us.'"  However, this is not what actually happens.  Bob thinks of himself as "a great success," someone who "had to fight for [his] success," someone who takes pride in having "done well."  In reality, however, Bob is a criminal, and he is probably going to prison for a long time.  Thus, he does not know "what kind of [man he is]" or "what future waited for [him]."  

Jimmy, we might be inclined to think, has fared a lot better: he is a cop.  However, he is not brave or strong enough to arrest a known criminal when given the opportunity.  He probably does not think of himself as a coward, just as Bob does not realize he is a crook and not "a success."  Ultimately, then, not even twenty years is enough to know who they truly are.  The point of view allows us to come to this realization—neither man is truly honest with himself about what he is.

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With the point of view as third person objective, the narrator of "After Twenty Years" is a detached observer of the action and any dialogue. This narrator never reveals anything about what the characters feel and think. Therefore, O. Henry's story ending with a reversal of fortune is effective in surprising the reader.

Despite having this detached observer as the narrator, there are some clues that Jimmy's friend who waits for him in the shadows of a doorway may not be an upright citizen. For instance, this man has a "little white mark near his eye," a scar. He also has "a large jewel in his necktie." Additionally, the waiting man takes out a "fine watch, covered with small jewels." Because of these details, the reader is not too surprised when this man is arrested. 

However, because the narrator simply refers to the other main character as "the cop," there is no indication that this character has an integral part in the plot, or that he is connected in any way to the man who waits to meet his old friend. Therefore, at the story's end, there is a considerable surprise. For when the letter is presented to the man known as 'Silky Bob' that informs him that Jimmy was at the meeting place on time, but because he did not want to be the one to arrest him he asked another policeman, and the reader experiences a surprise ending.

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