Mammon and the Archer Insights

O. Henry

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Mammon and the Archer questions.

Fascination with high society

Americans were fascinated with all aspects of high or higher society up until a certain point in history. Many stories and books dealt with the subject of "getting into high society." Probably the most famous novel on the subject is "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who also deals with it in his "Tender is the Night" and "The Beautiful and Damned." The theme figures prominently in Theodore Dreiser's greatest novel "An American Tragedy" and in "The Rise of Silas Lapham" by William Dean Howells. A great many short stories featured the pleasures and problems of the rich, including perhaps the majority of those written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the comical stories of P. G. Wodehouse. Virtually every newspaper in America carried a "Society" section in which the doings of the most important people in the area were chronicled. But one could argue that the American public has lost some interest in the subject and the people. What happened was that the movies came along and stole the spotlight from the old rich and the new rich and from the bourgeoise in general. The movie stars were better looking and more glamorous and led more interesting lives. Coincidentally, talking pictures came along at about the same time as the stock market crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. Many little Americans were financially and psychologically devastated by this disaster. They tended to blame their troubles, rightly or wrongly, on the rich businessmen who had been their heroes and idols in the past. Americans did not want to read about the parties and travels of the upper class while they themselves were frightened and struggling for survival. The upper class in America has never recovered its charisma. The same applies to what is left of the aristocracy in Europe, who used to hold such fascination for democratic Americans. 

Stereotype characters

"Mammon and the Archer" is an unusual type of story for O. Henry because he is dealing with the old rich and nouveau riche of the late nineteenth century. His main character, the protagonist Anthony Rockwall, is a stereotype common to fiction of the times. Rockwall is a self-made millionaire who admits:

"I'm nearly as impolite and disagreeable and ill-mannered as these two old Knickerbocker gents on each side of me that can't sleep of nights because I bought it between 'em."

The English must have had this stereotyped impression of wealthy Americans. Arthur Conan Doyle presents several such crude, aggressive characters in his Sherlock Holmes stories. 

Rockwall can't get into high society, but he wants his son to do so. Why? His son will be a symbol of his own success, just like his house and his yacht. Rockwall actually hates the old rich. He refers to his snobbish neighbor, the aristocratic clubman, G. Van Schuylight Suffolk-Jones, another stereotype, as a "Stuck up old statuette of doing nothing!"

Young Richard Rockwall is another stereotype character, a boy who has been deliberately spoiled in order to make him into a gentleman, i.e., a person who never has to work with his hands. He has been sent to one of those all-male colleges where most of the time is spent drinking and playing rather than on studies. He is encouraged to be a fop and a wastrel. He doesn't have to worry about earning a living because his father will leave him millions and may get him a phony job as a stock broker or member of a board of directors just for the sake of appearances. A real gentleman should not really have to work. Contemporary fiction was full of such characters who had some vague connection with some firm in the city but never seemed to have to go there.

Naturally Richard has fallen in love with a society girl who is also a stereotype. She is always referred to as Miss Lantry, as if she is too superior to be called by her first name by such persons as Anthony Rockwall, Richard Rockwall, or Aunt Ellen. Miss Lantry is available as a bride to any young man who can offer her the lavish lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. She will be sold to the highest bidder, like so many of the upper-class girls of her time.

O. Henry seems to be illustrating the thesis that there is no such thing as real love, at least at the highest social level. His reference to "a fat boy without any clothes on shooting arrows around with a bow" is tantamount to saying that love is nothing but an illusion, a myth. This is in direct contradiction to the theme of his story "The Gift of the Magi," to name only one example. 

Rockwall is proud of his son but doesn't appear to love him, and Richard doesn't appear to love his father either. Richard is mainly attracted to Miss Lantry because she symbolizes the upper class. He tells his father:

"For one thing...[money] won't buy one into the exclusive circles of society."

But his father knows better and proves him wrong by spending some of his money to create a traffic jam that will give his son the time to propose marriage to Miss Lantry and for her to accept. The marriage will probably endure as well as one based on "love" because both these spoiled young people will be able to live in luxury and move in the best circles for the rest of their lives.