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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Discussion Topic

Analysis of Bill's character and relationships in "The Ransom of Red Chief."

Summary:

Bill in "The Ransom of Red Chief" is a comical, beleaguered character who finds himself outmatched by the mischievous boy they kidnap. His relationship with the boy is marked by frustration and desperation as the boy's antics drive him to the brink. Bill's interactions with his partner Sam reveal his increasing desperation and eventual willingness to pay the boy's father to take him back.

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How is the character Bill described in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

While Bill and the narrator are holding captive the only child of Ebenezer Dorset, the narrator notes that the boy "had Bill terrorized from the start." The word "terrorized" might seem, at the beginning of the story, rather hyperbolic, but it does, nonetheless, suggest that Bill is not as tough or as in control as one might expect. As the story progresses, the word "terrorized" does not seem hyperbolic at all, and in fact the boy's treatment of Bill aptly justifies the word. Indeed, the reader likely begins to feel sorry for Bill as the terror escalates.

A little later in the story, the narrator is awoken by "indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams" from Bill. At this moment, the narrator sees that the boy is on top of Bill, seemingly trying to scalp him with a knife. In these circumstances, it is easy to understand why Bill's screams are described as "indecent, terrifying, [and] humiliating." The narrator manages to take the knife away from the boy but notes that "from this moment, Bill's spirit was broken." The word "broken" here implies permanence, suggesting that the boy has caused some kind of irreparable damage to Bill. Later in the story, the author uses words like "anxiously" and "tearfully" to describe Bill's reactions to the boy.

Elsewhere in the story, Bill is also described as "a strong, desperate, fat man." The words "strong" and "fat" convey the impression that, physically, Bill is a large man. This makes his relationship with and reaction to the boy all the more comical. The word "desperate" adds to the impression that Bill is a somewhat pathetic figure.

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What opinion do other characters have of Bill in "The Ransom of Red Chief?"

Because of the detached first person narration of O. Henry's story "The Ransom of Red Chief," determining any opinions that characters have for each other is more a matter of assumption than certainty. The characters who Bill interacts with to any significant degree are the boy, "Red Chief"; Sam, the narrator; and Ebenezer Dorset, the boy's father.  

Sam seems to view Bill as slightly less intelligent and talented than himself. Sam comes up with the ideas and assigns Bill his role, fully expecting Bill to comply. Sam seems to believe Bill is too squeamish about handling the boy, for he states that Red Chief "terrorized [Bill] from the start." The narrator's description of the way Bill cries out in fear when nearly being scalped suggests that he thought Bill was not as brave in the face of danger as he could have been:          

They were simply indecent, terrifying, humili­ating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. It’s an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak.

At one point, Sam fears for Bill's sanity, and when he agrees to pay the ransom, he does so because Bill "had the most appealing look in his eyes I ever saw on the face of a dumb or a talking brute."

Similarly, Red Chief must sense that Bill is easily manipulated and not very intelligent, making him all the more brutal and persistent in the torments he subjects Bill to.

Finally, Mr. Dorset realizes that Bill is completely terrorized by the boy, so when Bill asks him how long he can hold off the child, the man bluffs that he can probably only contain him for ten minutes. Dorset is easily able to outwit the petty criminals because he recognizes the lack of intelligence and wisdom in both Sam and Bill. 

Again, the reader must consider the biased perspective of the story when it is told only from Sam's perspective. Sam makes himself look better by emphasizing Bill's fear, weakness, and lower intelligence. Part of the irony of the story is that Sam shares in those same faults to a great degree. 

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What are Bill's feelings towards the boy in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Bill ends up loathing and terrified of little Johnny, the boy they kidnap. He is willing to do almost anything to get him off his hands. The humor and irony in the story turn on what looks like an easy money kidnapping becoming far more than the hapless kidnappers bargained for. At the beginning of their adventure, the twosome:

figured that Ebenezer would melt down for a ransom of two thousand dollars to a cent.

From the start, however, Johnny is a handful, pelting Bill in the eye with a piece of brick and putting up a fierce fight against being taken. Yet rather than being frightened, Johnny, who is pretending to be an Indian chief, thinks the kidnapping is a game. He thinks he is going camping. He has no sense he is in any real danger, and he wears Bill down with his antics to the point that Bill experiences utter exhaustion.

By the end of the story, when the father, Ebenezer, refuses to pay up, Bill is more than willing to pay him $250 to take the child off their hands. He says it feels like a bargain, asking what is $250 after all?

This story is an example of situational irony, where events unfold opposite from what is expected. One would expect the kidnappers to be in control of the situation, not the child.

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What are Bill's feelings towards the boy in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Bill cannot stand the boy. Upon kidnapping him, Johnny puts up such a fight that Bill is left putting ointment on his wounds. Johnny, "Red Chief," is having so much fun terrorizing Bill and pretending he is camping that he doesn't even want to go home. Bill takes the brunt of most of Johnny's energy. Not only is Bill exhausted and beat up, but he is mentally worn out. Eventually, he becomes afraid of Red Chief. Sam notes, "That boy had Bill terrorized from the start." 

Sam awakens the day after the kidnapping to hear Bill screaming like a woman. Johnny was "industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp." Sam gets the knife from Johnny and adds that "Bill's spirit was broken." Bill won't even sleep because he is legitimately afraid of what Johnny might do. Bill even tries to send Johnny home before they hear from Ebenezer about the ransom. By the end, Bill is so terrified and exhausted that he doesn't mind paying to have Johnny sent back home. 

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