Last Updated on May 27, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755
O. Henry’s widely varied background provided not only plots for his tales but also characters drawn from all walks of life. Ham in “The Hiding of Black Chief,” Caesar in “A Municipal Report,” and Lizzie in “The Guilty Party” are only isolated examples of O. Henry’s proficiency in creating a vivid sense of the texture of language for the reader by reproducing native dialect, be it Western, southern, or even “New Yorkese.” This linguistic sensitivity contributes to O. Henry’s versatility as a local colorist, as does his literary self-education. Echoes of Charles Dickens appear in “Elsie in New York,” allusions to Greek and Roman mythology in “Hygeia at the Solito” and “The Reformation of Calliope,” and parodic references to Arthur Conan Doyle in “The Adventure of Shamrock Jolnes.”
O. Henry’s popularity stems not only from his depiction of commonplace events and human responses but also from the surprise endings of his “well-made” plots. Talented as an ironist, he both comments upon and sympathizes with the ranch hands, bank clerks, and shop girls whose sorrows and foibles he re-creates. While much of his humor redounds from his likely use of puns and literary allusions, much might be called the humor of recognition—the rueful grin that occurs when a reader sees his or her own petty flaws mirrored in a character and predicts the inevitable downfall. The downfall, however, is often given the comic turn which made O. Henry famous. Kid Brady in “Vanity and Some Sables,” for example, would rather go to jail for the theft of furs than tell his girlfriend that her “Russian sables” cost $21.50 in a bargain basement; Maida, the shop girl in “The Purple Dress” who “starves eight months to bring a purple dress and a holiday together,” gives up her carefully garnered money to save a spendthrift friend from eviction. Molly sacrifices her furs—and her vanity—to prove Kid’s honesty, and Maida is outdone by her tailor in generosity so that she gets both her dress and the marriageable head clerk: These are the twist endings that turn minor personal tragedies into comic triumphs.
“The Gift of the Magi”
Possibly one of the most anthologized of O. Henry’s stories is “The Gift of the Magi,” a tale about the redeeming power of love. The protagonists, a couple named James and Della Young, struggle to live on a small salary. By Christmas Eve, Della’s thrift has gained her only $1.87 for her husband’s gift, which she had hoped would be “something fine and rare and sterling.” She decides to sell one of the family “treasures”—her long, beautiful chestnut hair—to buy a platinum chain for her husband’s prized possession, his watch. The first reversal is that he has bought her a set of pure tortoiseshell combs with which to adorn her long hair; the second, that he has sold his watch to do so.
In this story about the true spirit of gift-giving, both the family treasures and the protagonists take on Old Testamentary significance. Della’s hair, the reader is told, puts the Queen of Sheba’s wealth to shame; Jim’s watch rivals all of Solomon’s gold. Both unselfishly sacrifice their most precious possession for the other, thereby ushering in a new dispensation on Christmas Eve. Even more, these “two foolish children” acquire allegorical value in their act of giving insofar as they replicate the giving of the three wise men: “Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the wisest,” O. Henry tells us: “They are the magi.” In O. Henry’s version, then, the “Gift of the Magi” turns out not to be gold, frankincense, or myrrh, not even hair-combs or a watch chain, but rather selfless love.
“Past One at Rooney’s”
This love is what O. Henry posits as a cure for such social ills as the inevitable gang fights and prostitution he portrays in his New York stories. In “Past One at Rooney’s,” a tale introduced as a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595-1596), a gangster, hiding from the police, falls in love with a prostitute. They lie about their occupations for the sake of the other: Eddie MacManus pretends to be the son of a Wall Street broker, while Fanny claims to be a factory girl. When a policeman recognizes MacManus, however, she gives up her new identity to prevent the arrest. Pulling her night’s money out of her garter, she throws it at the policeman and announces that MacManus is her procurer. Once they are allowed to leave, MacManus confesses that he really is wanted by the police but intends to reform; and seeing that she still loves him, saves her (as she had “saved” him by sacrificing her hoped-for respectability) through marriage. Such stories of the “golden-hearted prostitute” are plentiful in the O. Henry canon and in themselves provide another clue to O. Henry’s popularity—his emphasis on the remnant of human compassion in the most cynical of characters.
Roads of Destiny
O. Henry is interested as well in what might be called the moment of choice: the decision to act, speak, or dress in a way which seems to determine the whole course of a life. The title story of the volume Roads of Destiny, a story allegorical in nature, suggests that the choice is not so much among different fates as among different versions of the same fate. Environment, in short, determines character, unless some modicum of self-sacrificing love as in “The Gift of the Magi” intervenes. More concretely, O. Henry saw poverty and exploitation as the twin evils of urban life. Often cited for his sympathetic portrayal of the underpaid store clerk who struggles to survive, he is, as well, a biting critic of those who perpetuate an inhumane system to satisfy personal greed or lust. “An Unfinished Story,” for example, castigates an aging lady-killer who is “a connoisseur in starvation. He could look at a shop-girl and tell you to an hour how long it had been since she had eaten anything more nourishing than marshmallows and tea.” Piggy, with whom O. Henry himself ruefully identified, preyed on shop girls by offering them invitations to dinner. The working girl might thus keep her conscience and starve, or sell herself and eat: This was her condition as well as her choice.
“The Trimmed Lamp”
Where a choice need not be made through hunger alone is the middle moral ground on which many of O. Henry’s stories take place. “The Trimmed Lamp,” the titular story of another volume, suggests two opposing ways to deal with an exploitative economic system. Nancy, a country girl content to work for small wages in a department store, mimics not only the quietly elegant dress but also the manners of her wealthy customers, while her friend Lou, a highly paid laundry presser, spends most of her money on expensive, conspicuous clothing. Nancy exploits the system by educating herself in the best it has to offer; Lou works for the system and profits monetarily. In the long run Nancy’s education teaches her the difference between purchased quality, such as the clothes Lou wears, and intrinsic quality, which cannot be bought. She refuses an offer of marriage from a millionaire because he is a liar: As O. Henry writes, “the dollar-mark grew blurred in her mind’s eye, and shaped itself into such words as ‘truth’ and ‘honor’ and now and then just ‘kindness.’” Lou, in contrast, becomes the mistress of a wealthy man, leaving her quiet, serious fiancée to Nancy. The final vignette, a plainly clothed but vibrantly happy Nancy trying to comfort her sobbing, fashionably dressed friend, illustrates the divergence between their two philosophies. While neither can escape completely from the economic system, Nancy refuses to measure human worth in monetary terms; instead, she adopts the same set of values posited in “The Gift of the Magi.”
“The Ransom of Red Chief”
Many of the stories O. Henry writes are quite outside the moral framework that is suggested in “The Trimmed Lamp.” Like others written about the “gentle grafters” which populated the nether side of his world, the story of “The Ransom of Red Chief” is of the “biter bit” variety. O. Henry’s humorous focus on the problems that two kidnappers have with their charge—a redhaired version of Tom Sawyer with the same unflagging energy for mischief—deflects the moral question about the criminal action. Johnny enjoys his adventure; he styles himself Red Chief and tries to scalp one of his captors at daybreak, then rides him to the stockade to “rescue” settlers, feeds him oats, and worries him with questions about why holes are empty. His father’s reply to a demand for ransom shows that he understands who is in captivity; he offers to take his son back for a sum of $250.
The Gentle Grafter
Similarly, the exploits recounted in The Gentle Grafter are modern tall tales, the heroes at times acquiring a mythological aura, at times appearing to be no different from the average man on the street. Grafting, in short, is an occupation which carries the same code of responsibilities as any legitimate business, as is made clear in “Shearing the Wolf.” When two con men, Jeff Peters and Andy Tucker, discover that the leading hardware merchant in town intends to frustrate someone else’s scheme to sell forged money, they agree that they cannot “stand still and see a man who has built up a business by his own efforts and brains and risk be robbed by an unscrupulous trickster.” The twist is that the “trickster” is the merchant and the “businessman” is the forger.
In a number of respects, then, O. Henry contributed immeasurably to the development of the American short story. To be sure, many of his works are considered ephemeral today, primarily because they first appeared as magazine fiction; but a careful perusal reveals that behind the humor lies the mirror of the social reformer. In the characters and situations one notices common human problems of the beginning of the twentieth century; in the humor one notices the attempt to deal with apparently insurmountable social problems. With his clever plot reversals, O. Henry does more than create a new story form; he keeps the reader alive to the connotations of language and aware that in a world dominated by an unfair economic system, human kindness may be the answer.
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