After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

Start Free Trial

Where is the setting of "After Twenty Years"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The story is set in New York at 10 o’clock at night, during the early twentieth century.

The story is set at night.  In fact, we know that it is ten o'clock. Also, it was published in 1906, so it probably takes place around then.  We know that the men are meeting in New York City.

He and I were raised here in New York, just like two brothers, together. I was eighteen and Jimmy was twenty. The next morning I was to start for the West to make my fortune.

The story action is happening on a street.  When the story starts, Bob is standing in front of a hardware store that used to be a diner.  He has agreed to meet his friend Jimmy there.  It is a very old date, but Bob knows Jimmy will keep it.  In fact, Jimmy does keep it.  Bob talks to Jimmy for most of the story.  He just doesn’t know he is talking to Jimmy, because Jimmy doesn’t identify himself.  Jimmy is a cop, and he is suspicious of Bob. 

The neighborhood might have been nice once, but it is a bit sketchy now.  Jimmy was on patrol when Bob showed up, out of habit.  He watches him, in the doorway of the darkened hardware store.

The vicinity was one that kept early hours. Now and then you might see the lights of a cigar store or of an all-night lunch counter; but the majority of the doors belonged to business places that had long since been closed.

Since most of the stores on the street are not open, it is not well lit.  Jimmy and Bob talk, and then Jimmy leaves.  He goes and gets  another cop who comes back and pretends to be him.  This cop talks to Bob until they walk to a corner, where there is a drug store with brighter lights.  Then Bob realizes he is not talking to Jimmy.  The cop then tells him he is under arrest, and gives him a note from Jimmy explaining that he recognized him but did not want to arrest him himself.

Setting the story in a big city at night makes it more believable.  You can see how people walking by would not notice or care about what goes on between two men having a conversation in the dark, or would not want to get involved.  Also, things change a lot in cities, maybe more than small towns.  The story of the cop and the crook is ironic, but the big city backdrop makes it classic.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When does "After Twenty Years" take place?

There is little in the story "After Twenty Years" to indicate its time period. We know it is a time period of electric lights. Although the action happens in New York City and the streets are mentioned, we are not told whether horses and carriages or cars are going down the streets, or both. Only "foot passengers" are mentioned, and the officer is patrolling his beat on foot. The fact that the story mentions that the drug store was "brilliant with electric lights" may indicate that electric lights in stores were somewhat new. Electricity came to New York City around 1884 and became more and more widespread over the succeeding decades. The fact that the man went "West," rather than specifying a specific state, such as California, may hint at a time of rail travel rather than automobiles. The officer mentions that the police communicated to Chicago via a "wire," meaning a telegraph. Telegraphs were used into the 1920s and 1930s because they were cheaper than placing long distance telephone calls. These clues suggest that the late 1800s or early 1900s was the setting for this story. But the best way to nail down a more specific time period is to consider the story's author, O. Henry. He published most of his stories from 1906 to 1910. Since he seems to have made no effort to identify any particular time period in the story, we could assume he meant it to be contemporary for his time, so we can place the story in the first decade of the 20th century. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the setting in "After Twenty Years"?

O. Henry does not specify where his story is taking place. However, when 'Silky' Bob is talking to the policeman without recognizing him as his old friend Jimmy Wells, Bob reveals the name of the city.

The next morning I was to start for the West to make my fortune. You couldn't have dragged Jimmy out of New York; he thought it was the only place on earth. 

In those days New York meant only Manhattan. Now the name of the city applies to a much larger area called Greater New York. 'Silky' Bob is standing in the doorway of a store in the central part of Manhattan. The city is booming because of its great location, its harbor, and the influx of immigrants from Europe. The district has apparently changed a lot. Twenty years ago Bob and Jimmy had said goodbye right there at a restaurant called "Big Joe" Brady's. According to the policeman, the restaurant had been torn down five years ago. No doubt New York was undergoing many rapid changes because of population growth.

Bob has been traveling all over the "West" in those twenty years. What they called the West in those days is what is now called the Midwest. Bob probably never traveled any farther west than Chicago in Illinois. The change in the site where the two men are standing, and the changes in the district as a whole, symbolize the passage of time as well as the changes that have taken place in the men's characters. Their characters have evolved as they have adapted to their environments. According to Bob:

A man gets in a groove in New York. It takes the West to put a razor-edge on him.”

Jimmy has certainly gotten into a groove in New York. He wears a uniform, patrols the same streets, probably has a wife, children, and a home. Bob has become hardened, street-smart, and furtive. He has probably talked to dozens of cops over the years and thinks he knows just how to handle them.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on