Essays and Criticism
Epistemological Approach For Understanding the Story
In a first reading, ‘‘Mammon and the Archer’’ is a straightforward tale that pits two contradictory characters and philosophies against one another. Anthony Rockwall is a self-made ‘‘ex-Soap King’’ who believes in the supremacy of money, even to the extent that money can buy love. Aunt Ellen, on the other hand, is sentimental and has a more idealistic notion concerning true love. By the end of the tale, both characters believe that their beliefs have been vindicated by the engagement of young Richard and Miss Lantry. However, neither Anthony Rockwall nor Aunt Ellen truly knows all the circumstances; each one has an opinion that is misinformed. The narrative contains lacunae—gaps in knowledge and an absence of adequate description of key events— that do not clarify or allow the reader to make an accurate assessment as to whether money or love triumphs in the end; for example, O. Henry completely neglects portraying what actually takes place in the carriage, the incident which leads to the engagement. The ending is ambiguous, particularly without the depiction of the crucial carriage scene. While the ending is neither an endorsement of the power of true love or money, it is an epistemological homage illustrating the bounds and limits of each character’s and each reader’s understanding of what has occurred.
Epistemology is the study of the nature and grounds of human knowledge. The theories place particular emphasis on the limits of knowledge and the degree that knowledge can be validated. For instance, an epistemological study of religion would involve exactly how human beings can or cannot prove the existence of God. What are the limitations to a logical attempt to prove God exists? Do these limitations, if sufficient enough, prove that God does not exist? O. Henry’s story, with all its gaps and limitations on what is known to the two key characters and the reader, is an epistemological text. Any attempts at proving the superiority of either Mammon or the Archer must begin with a scrutiny of the limitations on knowledge inherent throughout.
Old Anthony Rockwall’s entire outlook on life is defined by money. He is a self-made man whose position is validated by his fortune. The allusions to this within the text are so numerous that O. Henry could easily be accused of creating a character who is too one-dimensional. Old Rockwall talks of nothing but money. This obsession is parodied when Old Rockwall measures the ‘‘worth’’ of his son by how much Richard spends on soap: ‘‘‘You’re a gentleman,’ said Anthony, decidedly. ‘I’ve heard of young bloods spending $24 a dozen for soap, and going over the hundred mark for clothes.’’’ He even picks out vague references to money and profit while relaxing with a book: ‘‘‘Sister,’ said Anthony Rockwall. ‘I’ve got my pirate in a devil of a scrape. His ship has just been scuttled, and he’s too good a judge of the value of money to let drown. I wish you would let me go on with this chapter.’’’ This obsession with money limits Anthony’s ability to evaluate a situation in any other terms. He knows that money has gained him access into the highest levels of New York society, although he admits that he is not readily accepted: ‘‘I’m nearly as impolite and ill-mannered as these two old knickerbocker gents on each side of me that can’t sleep of nights because I bought in between ’em.’’ Anthony’s status as a parvenu, a nouveau riche member of society, is further emphasized by the narrator snidely referring to him as the ‘‘ex-Soap King’’ and to his home as the ‘‘soap palace.’’ While an image of the King of England may command some respect, the image of a soap king living in a soap palace, presumably feverishly hoping that it never rains, invites mockery. Indeed, the descriptions of Anthony may be viewed as mocking in light of the fact that Anthony so clearly holds up wealth as a universal truth, almost a religion.
The very title of the tale includes a synonym for money with negative implications; the word mammon, as used by Matthew in the New Testament (6:24) refers to material wealth or possessions, especially in light of it having a debasing influence: ‘‘You cannot serve God and mammon.’’ Considering that Anthony invokes different religions and pagan cultural figures throughout the text in a derogatory way (‘‘But don’t forget to burn a few punk sticks in the joss house to the god Mazuma from time to time’’ and...
(The entire section is 1833 words.)