Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Best of O. Henry questions.

The Doctor

O. Henry characterizes the doctor in a subtle way in the following passage of dialogue.

“She has one chance in—let us say, ten,” he said, as he shook down the mercury in his clinical thermometer. “And that chance is for her to want to live....Your little lady has made up her mind that she's not going to get well.”

The thermometer is, of course, calibrated. The doctor is shaking the mercury back down while estimating that Johnsy has one chance in possibly ten. This is obviously an expert who thinks in such precise, "calibrated" terms. He is not unsympathetic, but he has seen many people die and has learned to accept reality as well as to accept his limitations as a medical doctor. The fact that O. Henry shows him shaking the thermometer as he makes his calculation also indicates that he has just taken Johnsy's temperature and that it was probably dangerously high. Johnsy has only one chance in ten "if she wants to live," according to this gray-haired authority. If she doesn't want to live, she has no chance at all.

Old Behrman's Dialect

The use of dialect for characterization and for comic effect was very popular in America for many years. It was also a standard routine among stand-up comedians in vaudeville. Dialect was probably popular with American readers and audiences because there was such an enormous influx of immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and this influx must have been caused by the introduction of steamships and cheap, relatively safe transportation from the Old World. The most common dialects mimicked by writers and comedians were German, Swedish, Jewish, and Irish. The use of such dialects in fiction has a tendency to date a story or novel--i.e., to make it seem olf-fashioned. Readers do not appreciate it any more because it makes hard reading, because it doesn't seem very funny, and because it smacks of prejudice. O. Henry uses dialect frequently in his stories, and he is pretty good at it, although it does tend to make his stories sound old-fashioned. Reading O. Henry often seems like traveling back into America's past.

Jimmy's Maturation

“A Retrieved Reformation” opens appropriately in prison. This is mainly to show that Jimmy Valentine may be a top professional safecracker and a smooth operator, but he does get caught. He is learning a couple of lessons with increasing age and experience. One is that his profession is getting tougher because he is building a record and a reputation. The other is that he is learning the shoe business and learning to like it. He also is impressed by the fact that he had to spend ten months in prison when he was only expecting to spend a few months until his connections on the outside could get him a pardon. This shows that it is getting harder to get out of prison and easier to get back in. He is losing favor with important friends on the outside. He is losing favor because he does get caught and because he is a convicted felon.

All of this is preliminary or preparatory to his sudden change of character when he falls in love at first sight with Annabel Adams. It suggests that Jimmy would have decided to reform even if he had never seen Annabel. She was not so much a "cause" as a "catalyst." O. Henry did not want his story to be simplistic, as it would have been if the protagonist only fell in love at first sight and immediately reformed. Reformation was a serious matter for O. Henry. He himself had served several years in prison for embezzlement and wrote under an assumed name in the hope of avoiding having his past exposed.

 

Why Did O. Henry Create a German Artist to Paint the Fake Leaf?

Old Behrman is a good example of how a skillful fiction writer will create characters to suit the needs of his plot. This tends to make both the plot and the character seem more realistic. O. Henry's plot required the introduction of a painter who would save Johnsy's life by painting a fake leaf on the nearby brick wall. But the author did not want to raise any suspicion that the artist he created would think of doing such a thing. O. Henry wanted the existence of a fake leaf to come as a complete surprise at the end of the story. The leaf deceives Johnsy and it also deceives the reader.

By making his artist a German who spoke very poor English with a heavy accent, O. Henry could introduce Behrman and show the sentimental old man's sympathy for the sick girl, but at the same time dissuade any reader from suspecting that this old man could or would paint a leaf high up on a wall in the middle of a stormy night. O. Henry intentionally has Behrman contradict himself repeatedly while speaking to Susie. For example:

"No, I will not bose as a model for your fool hermit-dunderhead."

“Who said I will not bose? Go on. I come mit you. For half an hour I haf peen trying to say dot I am ready to bose."

Behrman also expresses contempt for the notion that a leaf could have anything to do with Johnsy's life or death.

"Vy do you allow dot silly pusiness to come in der prain of her?" 

Because of the language barrier, Behrman cannot understand Sue completely and she cannot understand him. The reader cannot understand him either--which is exactly what O. Henry wants. 

There is also the fact, which O. Henry emphasizes, that Behrman is a heavy gin-drinker. This naturally interferes with his mental processes as well as with his ability to understand and communicate in English. He can't express himself, and he really doesn't know what he would like to express.

Old Behrman is a heavy drinker because he is depressed. He is depressed because he feels he is a failure as an artist. The intoxication created by all that gin will motivate him to make the fatal decision to get a ladder and a lantern and paint that last leaf as a farewell gift to Johnsy. He doesn't care about risking his life. He is a failure anyway. He has nothing left to live for. He puts all his emotions into the creation of a single ivy leaf which has the power to inspire the sick girl with the old man's love and courage. O. Henry describes the fake leaf seen by Johnsy in such a way that it can be regarded as an unusual artistic masterpiece.

Still dark green near its stem, but with its serrated edges tinted with the yellow of dissolution and decay, it hung bravely from a branch some twenty feet above the ground.

It is not just a daub of green paint but a perfect representation of a real leaf which is gradually dying but still managing to cling to its branch. It seems to hang "bravely," and it is this bravery that inspires Johnsy to return to the struggle for existence which we all know and share.

 

The Tall Plainclothes Detective

O. Henry emphasizes that the plainclothes policeman who comes to arrest Bob is quite tall. The author's purpose is to suggest that the man is bigger than Bob and could overcome him with force if that should become necessary. O. Henry did not want the arrest to involve physical force, guns, or handcuffs. Any force used in arresting Bob would reflect badly on Jimmy Wells. Arresting his old friend who had come a thousand miles to meet him seems questionable enough. Some readers seem to think Jimmy should have let Bob go. Jimmy himself had such qualms about the problem that he turned the job over to another policeman. O. Henry is trying to soften Jimmy's betrayal by making Bob's arrest as painless as possible. This explains why Bob and the plainclothes detective go off together arm in arm, why there is only one man making the arrest, and why there is no use or threat of force. When Bob realizes that the man with whom he is walking arm in arm cannot be Jimmy Wells, he does not try to resist or make a run for it because the arresting officer is obviously bigger and stronger. This explains why the detective says:

"Going quietly, are you? That's sensible."

The whole arrest could not be more peaceful. Bob is "sensible" because the detective could easily overpower him.

O. Henry also ameliorates the seriousness of Bob's predicament. He may not be facing jail time at all. The plainclothes detective tells him:

"Chicago thinks you may have dropped over our way and wires us she wants to have a chat with you." 

Referring to the Chicago police as "she" makes them seem polite and hospitable, like a hostess. Also the word "chat" suggests that the Chicago police haven't charged Bob with any crime and may only want to interrogate him. Since he is a slick operator and a smooth talker, Bob may be able to talk his way out of a tight spot when he gets to Chicago. All of this is intended to palliate Jimmy's act of turning his old friend over to the law.

 

 

The Plainclothes Detective's Nose

Bob walks up the street arm in arm with the plainclothes detective, thinking the tall man is his old friend Jimmy Wells. When they reach the lighted drugstore Bob balks. 

“You're not Jimmy Wells,” he snapped. “Twenty years is a long time, but not long enough to change a man's nose from a Roman to a pug.”

Jimmy Wells had a big Roman nose. This plainclothes detective has a pug nose. Evidently it had been the detective's intention to lead Bob arm in arm all the way to the station house. But at this point he is forced to admit that he is not Bob's old friend and to tell Bob that he is under arrest. 

O. Henry wanted the arrest to be made as peaceably as possible because it looks bad enough for Jimmy to be turning his old friend over to the law, and it would look worse for Jimmy if there were a violent arrest involving a gun, handcuffs, and physical force. But Bob has to find out he is under arrest before they get to the station house. That would take up unnecessary time, and it would depart from the compact scene in which O. Henry has adroitly set the whole story. The lighted drugstore is like the extreme outer-edge of the setting.

The pug nose instead of the Roman nose is an unmistakable way for Bob to realize instantaneously that he has been tricked. He still can't try to make a break for it because he is locked arm in arm with the plainclothes detective, who is a bigger man. This is a good spot to end the story. They are standing right in front of a brilliantly lighted drugstore window which O. Henry has created and placed there for his surprise ending. The lighted window also provides a convenient place for Bob to read the note from Jimmy. He would have a very hard time finding another place to read it in this neighborhood. O. Henry describes the setting in the opening of the story:

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.