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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Bill's favorite character as King Herod in "The Ransom of Red Chief" and its humor

Summary:

Bill's favorite character in "The Ransom of Red Chief" is King Herod, which adds humor due to the absurdity and irony of a young boy play-acting as a ruthless historical figure. This incongruity between the boy's innocence and the character's notorious reputation heightens the comedic effect of the story.

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Why is Bill's favorite character King Herod in "The Ransom of Red Chief", and why is this humorous?

O. Henry uses numerous allusions in his comic story “The Ransom of Red Chief.” The reference to King Herod evokes the idea of infanticide, the killing of children. King Herod was the king of Judea in the era when Jesus was born. In the Bible, according to Matthew, he ordered the massacre of newborn boys so that none of them could replace him as king of the Jews.

Bill, one of the kidnappers, finds it difficult to tolerate the behavior of Red Chief, or Johnny Dorset. The lines about Herod come immediately after the boy uses a sling to hit Bill on the ear with a rock, which causes him to fall into a pan of hot water in the campfire. Bill implies that he wants to kill little Johnny because of his bad behavior.

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Why is Bill's favorite character King Herod?    

After Bill has been injured several times by Red Chief and worn to a frazzle by the boy's inexhaustible energies and demands for attention, he has the following conversation with Sam.

By and by, Bill sits up and feels behind his ear and says: 'Sam, do you know who my favourite Biblical character is?'

'Take it easy,' says I. 'You'll come to your senses presently.'

'King Herod,' says he. 'You won't go away and leave me here alone, will you, Sam?'

Herod was King of Judea at the time of the birth of Jesus. He had been told by the three Magi that the new king of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem, where they were going in order to worship him. Herod is best remembered for the so-called "Massacre of the Innocents." In order to forestall being replaced as King of the Jews by the newborn child, Herod ordered all children two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem to be massacred by his soldiers. This event is recorded in Matthew 16 in the New Testament.

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

Bill, of course, is only being facetious. He is evidently a softhearted man and an easy victim of the rambunctious kidnap victim who calls himself Red Chief. However, there is a serious side to Bill's reference to Herod. If Bill and Sam were real cold-hearted kidnappers, they might consider killing Red Chief as a way of getting rid of him and saving themselves the $250 that Johnny's father demands as counter-ransom for taking the wild kid off their hands. But although both men are injured and terrorized by Red Chief, they never hurt him at all, and they would never consider killing him, even though they sign their ransom letter "Two Desperate Men." Bill and Sam can't handle this little ten-year-old boy because they can't use physical force, and they have no moral authority as adults because they are kidnappers. If they used violence on the boy, it would spoil the story by changing the reader's perception of their characters. It would also make their crime more serious if Johnny was returned home with bruises and abrasions. So Johnny can be violent with them, but they can't be violent with Johnny without risking becoming subjects of a nationwide manhunt. Their non-violence only provokes the boy to more violence.

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Why is King Herod Bill's favorite Biblical character in "The Ransom of Red Chief", and why is this humorous?

Bill likes King Herod because he was—shall we say—rather more forceful in dealing with young children than Bill could ever be. Bill desperately wishes he could channel the murderous spirit of this biblical baby-killer in handling the spoiled brat that is Johnny Dorset. That is he woefully unable to do so is ironic indeed. Bill wants to be tough just like his favorite character from the Bible but somehow just can't manage it. In case we didn't already know it, Bill lacks the ruthlessness to be a master criminal like his hero; he and his partner Sam are strictly small-time.

Angered and embarrassed by his inability to tame little Johnny, Bill thinks it would've been better if little Johnny had never been born at all or maybe bumped off when he was younger. At least then, Bill wouldn't have to deal with him now.

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Why is King Herod Bill's favorite Biblical character in "The Ransom of Red Chief", and why is this humorous?

"The Ransom of Red Chief" is about two kidnappers who are terrorized by the boy they have kidnapped. This is at the center of the reference to Herod who, in the New Testament, famously ordered the widespread deaths of male babies. This is actually a statement of just how helpless and in over his head Bill feels and the degree to which Johnny has gotten into his head.

I do want to note, the larger tone of the story is very important in setting context for this kind of line. After all, were it a horror story or a thriller, such a reference would have been sinister. But "Ransom of Red Chief" is itself a humorous story. The two robbers are petty criminals, not murderers—and as we see throughout the story, they tend to be at Johnny's mercy rather than the other way around.

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Why is King Herod Bill's favorite Biblical character in "The Ransom of Red Chief", and why is this humorous?

Bill Driscoll is one of two kidnappers who take a young boy named Johnny Dorset for ransom. Ironically, however, the boy winds up taking control of the situation because he terrifies one kidnapper, Bill, while the second, Sam, negotiates the ransom. As a result, Bill endures physically exhausting play with the rambunctious Johnny. Johnny yells at, threatens, hits and punches Bill--leaving a few marks in the process! Bill soon becomes overwhelmed and fatigued. As Sam attempts to leave him with the boy a second time, Bill makes the following comment:

"Sam, do you know who my favorite Biblical character is? . . . King Herod . . . You won't go away and leave me here alone, will you, Sam?"

King Herod is the one who ordered all firstborn baby boys killed when he heard rumors that a baby had been born who would take his place as King of the Jews. Since Johnny is his father's eldest, Bill's reference to King Herod from the New Testament is appropriate. He implies that King Herod had the right idea by killing little boys. This helps to show the reader how Bill truly feels about Johnny. He either wishes he could kill Johnny, or he wishes Johnny had never been born. Either way, it is humorous that Bill would make this connection to King Herod in the Bible. It shows just how overwhelmed Bill is after spending so much time with Johnny. The comment is also funny because it isn't explained further. The King Herod comment is left untouched by the characters so readers can make the connection to the story about King Herod for themselves and draw their own conclusions about Bill's feelings in "The Ransom of Red Chief."

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