Analysis

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“The Marry Month of May” appeared in O. Henry’s 1910 collection, Whirligigs. It is not one of the author’s best-known stories, but it is one of his most characteristic, exhibiting to a high degree the formula the reader expects from an O. Henry story. The characters are predominantly flat and static, subordinated to the cleverness of the plot. The story is full of polysyllabic humor, grandiose words and phrases undercut by the actual motivations and conduct of the characters. The tone is light and facetious, making use of literary allusions and puns for comic effect. The final twist is contrived and unrealistic but ingenious in terms of the story’s structure.

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The author emphasizes the story’s unrealistic, didactic nature from the very beginning. The initial four paragraphs of commentary on the month of May and its effects on otherwise rational people suggest that the narrative is there to illustrate a point, making it a type of parable or fable. However, the facetious tone makes it clear that the reader should not take this parable seriously. In the second paragraph, O. Henry says that nature uses the madness of May to show people that they are animals rather than gods:

She reminds us that we are brothers to the chowder-doomed clam and the donkey; lineal scions of the pansy and the chimpanzee, and but cousins-german to the cooing doves, the quacking ducks and the housemaids and policemen in the parks.

The structure here is taken from classical rhetoric, an ascending tricolon of examples. The diction is grandiose, using formal terms such as “lineal scions” and “cousins-german.” However, this pompous vocabulary is undercut by the ludicrous juxtapositions of the clam and the donkey, the pansy and the chimpanzee, and by the way in which the housemaids and policemen are not only described as part of the natural fauna of the parks, but are placed below the doves and the ducks. This writing style is well represented by the single compact compound adjective “chowder-doomed,” a mock-heroic description of the clam’s fate.

This style is at its most florid and facetious when the author addresses the reader directly, but it is a feature of the entire story, including the dialogue. When Mr. Coulson first attempts to propose marriage to Mrs. Widdup, he attempts to quote Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote in “Locksley Hall” the famous lines:

In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove;
In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

First, Mr. Coulson hastily omits the word “young” in the second line, as inappropriate to the circumstances. Then he quotes the first line, to which Mrs. Widdup replies: “They do be lively, the Irish.” Her misunderstanding undermines Mr. Coulson’s attempt to be romantic and poetic, as well as emphasizing that the two of them are barely listening to each other. However, Mr. Coulson does not need irrelevant responses from Mrs. Widdup to undermine his romantic gesture. He follows this comment by offering his housekeeper “half a million dollars' worth of Government bonds and the true affection of a heart . . . no longer beating with the first ardour of youth.” Even in the grip of May madness, Mr. Coulson realizes that his money is the most attractive thing about him and mentions it before his heart when he proposes marriage.

While some of O. Henry’s...

(The entire section contains 880 words.)

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