Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

O. Henry once said “I would like to live a lifetime on each street of New York. Every house has a drama in it.” “The Furnished Room” derives from such a human-interest focus and embodies material of that era when the American city was first beginning to attract significant numbers of adventurous spirits from towns across the country. Thus, the pain of separation, the mystery involved in the quest, and the nervous possibility of misadventure or failure were all thematic subtexts in this tale. The romantic theme of lost love accompanied by a failed, desperate search is intertwined here with the ironic role fate plays in people’s fortunes. Here were illustrations and preachments of caution for anyone about to embark on a great urban quest. Glamorous and accessible as the big city might seem, life there is dotted with dangers and pitfalls.

While no profound philosophical underpinnings support the tale’s meaning, O. Henry has caught the simple, moving human passions exemplifying the small encounters of everyday life: the missed connections, the inevitable disappointments, the little deceptions. Alongside these considerations, too, is the drama of obsession and its often gloomy results. The young man, propelled by romantic love and driven by the need to find his missing sweetheart, is himself pulled into the quicksand, the melancholia of his persona and the unfounded wildness of his hope ultimately contributing to hallucination and self-destruction. In general, though, O. Henry concentrates on the so-called human comedy: Life is filled with strange twists and turns, its uncharted convolutions driving humanity to strange destinies. One’s aspirations, the author suggests, must be tempered by acknowledgment of reality; one’s behavior must be governed by common sense. Although the events in the tale seem to emanate from accident and coincidence, the characters might have survived their urban trials had they made rational rather than passionate choices. The dangers of the harsh, unfeeling city and its canny, hardened citizens, therefore, pose a threat to the simple uninitiate that should be heeded.