After Twenty Years

by O. Henry

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"After Twenty Years" Themes

The main themes in “After Twenty Years” are friendship versus duty, how time changes people, and crime does not pay.

  • Friendship versus duty: In having Bob arrested, Jimmy Wells chooses his public duty as a police officer over private loyalty to his old friend.
  • How time changes people: Bob’s failure to recognize Jimmy raises the question of how much time has, or has not, changed the two men.

  • Crime does not pay: While Bob has achieved greater success as a criminal than Jimmy has as a patrolman, his life of crime ultimately leads to his arrest.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Friendship versus Duty

“After Twenty Years” was first published in 1906 and is set, like most of O. Henry’s stories, in the present or recent past. The action takes place, therefore, during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency or earlier, at a time when the United States had a strong ethos of public duty, based on the values of the Roman Republic on which it was modeled. There is no sign of any struggle in Jimmy Wells’s mind between the claims of friendship and duty. If he ever considers letting his friend go for old time’s sake, the author does not mention it. The only concession he makes is to avoid arresting Bob himself. Even then, as he leaves Bob to wait, he ensures that he will stay where he is long enough for the plainclothes detective to arrest him.

Given Jimmy’s apparent single-mindedness in pursuit of his duty, it may seem that the question of friendship versus duty is too easily decided for it to be a major theme. However, the author, who sometimes goes so far as to break the fourth wall and tell the reader what he thinks in other stories, does not align himself with either character or perspective here. Bob never considers the possibility that Jimmy will betray him to the authorities. He does not know that Jimmy is a police officer, but he might still have considered whether such an upright citizen would call the police on discovering that his friend was a well-known criminal. It may be that he thinks Jimmy will never discover this, and does not propose to tell him, but his praise of Jimmy is, nonetheless, consistently directed toward his private character as a friend. Jimmy is his “best chum,” his brother, true and stanch, the type of man who will never forget a promise. This suggests that Jimmy might at least feel a pang of remorse on reflecting that Bob’s personal loyalty is to be his undoing. Whether his decision to leave Bob’s arrest to another man is due to such remorse, to sentimentality, or to moral cowardice is for the reader to decide, as is the larger question of whether he is right to place public duty above friendship.

How Time Changes People

“After Twenty Years” concludes with three surprises in quick succession. First, Bob realizes that the man who claims to be Jimmy is not Jimmy. Second, it is revealed that Bob is a well-known criminal. Third, Jimmy confesses in his note that he was the police officer to whom Bob spoke at the beginning of the story. All these surprises show different aspects of the changes wrought by time.

Either Jimmy or Bob or both of them have changed so much that Bob does not recognize Jimmy, despite the fact that he is expecting him. He then fails to realize that the second man he meets, who claims to be Jimmy, is not his old friend. It is only when they pass the brightly lit window of a drugstore that he notices a physical feature that does not change with age, the shape of a man’s nose. When he comments on this physical point, the detective responds with a moral one: time “sometimes changes a good man into a bad one.” This does not seem quite accurate as a summary of what has happened in the story. There is no indication that Bob was a particularly good man at the age of eighteen, when he last saw Jimmy. Bob’s own description suggests that they both had to work out what kind of men they were to be, though he is full of praise for Jimmy’s qualities as a true friend. It may be that Jimmy has come to care less about friendship, though it seems more likely that the qualities Bob saw in him would always have given him a strong sense of duty.

Although Bob thinks him slow, Jimmy is the more perceptive of the two. He recognizes Bob and also understands how his character has developed. He sees what has changed in Bob, as well as how he has remained the same. Bob, meanwhile, fails to recognize Jimmy as he is now, leaving it for the reader to decide whether Jimmy has changed so as to be unrecognizable or whether Bob never knew his friend as well as he thought.

Crime Does Not Pay

At the beginning of the story, Bob is pleased with his success in life. Rather patronizingly, he hopes “Jimmy has done half as well” and thinks it unlikely that he has, since Jimmy was always a “plodder.” Bob contrasts his own ambition and sharp wits favorably with Jimmy’s slow but steady attitude to life. However, he entirely omits the moral dimension, making no distinction between making a fortune honestly and becoming rich through crime. At the end of the story, he is arrested, and the reader assumes that he will, at least, go to prison. Although this is an incidental feature in the story, it provides a traditionally moral ending. Bob’s career in crime, which has provided him with wealth and which he sees as success, has come to a bad end.

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