The Four Million

by O. Henry

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535

As was his wont, at times O. Henry would slip into a story something specific from his life. In the story that leads off The Four Million, "Tobin's Palm," O. Henry makes a literary declaration. One of the characters in the story is a writer who comments: "I wander abroad by night seeking idiosyncrasies in the masses and truth in the heavens above. The rapid transit is poetry and art: the moon but a tedious, dry body, moving by rote." This is just as O. Henry did. "'Ye will put me in a book,' says Tobin, disgusted; 'will ye put me in a book?' 'I will not,' says the man,' for the covers will not hold ye. Not yet.'" O. Henry tried mightily to put the characters of New York into a book, and if he failed in his own eyes, he nonetheless succeeded better than any other short story writer of the day.

The Four Million, O. Henry's second collection of short stories, was the first to bear all the recognizable O. Henry traits. As he said in another of his books, he was the voice of the city, giving it expression and reality. New York was the gateway to America then, and immigrants were pouring in from all parts of the world. O. Henry celebrated that ethnic diversity.

O. Henry was the conscience of the city, too. He not only spoke eloquently of the plight of the poor in such stories as "The Skylight Room" and "An Unfinished Story," but he brought romance and adventure, excitement and glamour to those who had too little of it in their lives.

What made O. Henry a thoroughly American artist was his conviction of the essential benevolence of life. Put another way, he was the spokesman for the American Dream. He wrote for an audience that was not far removed from the immigrant experience; if they were not immigrants themselves, probably their parents were. America was a country of immigrants. Most of them came to America looking for a better life. True, they often found poverty, but there was also hope, and O. Henry gave expression to that ideal in his fiction. Despite the vastness of the city, lost lovers can be reunited as they are in "Tobin's Palm" and "Springtime a la Carte," a young woman can be rescued from suicide in "The Skylight Room," and true love can win out in "An Adjustment of Nature" and "Mammon and the Archer." In "The Green Door" adventure and romance beckon. Despite poverty, the lovers have each other in "The Gift of the Magi" and in "A Service of Love," and that is more than enough, O. Henry maintains. In "Lost on Dress Parade" and "The Coming-Out of Maggie" the characters filch a bit of glamour for their otherwise drab lives.

Still, tragedy is rarely far away. "Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating," O. Henry wrote. That may sound coy, but suicide is the conclusion of "The Furnished Room," made more tragic by callous indifference, and in "An Unfinished Story" it is clear that degradation is not far ahead, the result of loneliness, despair, and poverty.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291

O. Henry's writing is irrevocably linked with the surprise ending. Indeed, the term "O. Henry ending" has entered the literary vocabulary. However, the O. Henry ending was not merely something tacked onto the body of the story to astound the reader, it was a natural illumination of character. The surprise ending was an expression of his philosophy of life. Take, for instance, the well-known "The Gift of the Magi," the second story of The Four Million. The surprise ending not only epitomizes the character of these two self-sacrificing lovers, but it also epitomizes the character of love itself, the very theme of O. Henry's story. Theme and character are embodied in the surprise that really is not a surprise lurking at the end.

In the same way the climax of "The Love-Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein" drives home the point of the story. Ikey, using his wiles, tries to trick his rival and gain the heart of his beloved. But his rival, more honest than Ikey, adheres to the philosophy "if you get the girl get her on the square." At the surprising conclusion, Ikey discovers that he has failed precisely because he is not on the square. Ikey may not be any wiser, but the readers are.

O. Henry's works have been most closely identified with the short fiction of Guy de Maupassant and Anton Chekhov. All three were prolific in the shorter forms, writing stories frequently of the lower class, and often using the slice of life story for revelation. But there is an amorality about Maupassant and a fatalism about Chekhov that O. Henry would have been unable to accept. Many American writers have attempted to emulate the slangy storytelling of O. Henry, few as successfully as Ring Lardner.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 269

The best-known adaptation of the stories of O. Henry is a 1952 film titled O. Henry's Full House, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Cast and production were first-rate. John Steinbeck introduced the five stories: "The Cop and the Anthem," screenplay by Lamar Trotti, directed by Henry Koster, starring Charles Laughton, David Wayne, and Marilyn Monroe; "The Clarion Call," screenplay by Richard Breen, directed by Henry Hathaway; starring Dale Robertson and Richard Widmark; "The Last Leaf," screenplay by Ivan Coff and Ben Roberts, directed by Jean Negulesco, starring Anne Baxter, Jean Peters, and Gregory Ratoff; "The Ransom of Red Chief," screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, directed by Howard Hawks, starring Fred Allen and Oscar Levant; and "The Gift of the Magi," screenplay by Walter Bullock, directed by Henry King, starring Jeanne Crain and Farley Granger.

Hollywood has also extensively used the O. Henry character The Cisco Kid in twenty-three films — sound and silents — with varying degrees of authenticity. Besides films, there was also a 1950s television series, The Cisco Kid, starring Duncan Renaldo.

A number of O. Henry stories have been filmed over the years. Most are just titles, now, but a few are still remembered: The Green Door, 1917; An American Live Wire, 1918; Everybody's Girl, 1918; You're Fired, 1919; Alias Jimmy Valentine, 1920; The Texan, 1930; Doctor Rhythm, 1938; Llano Kid, 1940; Black Eagle, 1948; and The Big Chief, April 1960.

In 1957 there was a television series based upon the short stories of O. Henry. It was titled The O. Henry Playhouse. The thirty-minute anthology, hosted by Thomas Mitchell, lasted for thirty-nine episodes. Among the stories adapted for the small screen were "Georgia's Ruling," "Between Rounds," and "Hearts and Hands."

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