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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Character revelation in "The Ransom of Red Chief."


In "The Ransom of Red Chief," the characters of Sam and Bill are revealed through their interactions with the mischievous boy they kidnap. Despite their criminal intentions, they are portrayed as bumbling and increasingly desperate, highlighting their incompetence and lack of foresight. The boy's fearless and domineering nature contrasts sharply with the kidnappers' growing frustration and fear, ultimately leading to their decision to pay the boy's father to take him back.

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How does the author reveal character in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

The author develops characters in this short story through their physical descriptions, actions, and speech.

Johnny, the young boy who has been kidnapped, proves to be an ironically difficult child to hold for ransom. He lives in a world of wild-make believe, and his temperament is not the docile child the kidnappers expected from a wealthy and respected family. One morning, little Johnny, who calls himself Red Chief in this story, seems intent on scalping his "playmate":

Red Chief was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp...

The kidnapped child has thwarted their plans by shifting the roles. His characterization is developed as being too wild to tame, and the description of Bill that follows shows the effect this has had on him, as well:

From that moment, Bill’s spirit was broken. He laid down on his side of the bed, but he never closed an eye again in sleep as long as that boy was with us.

Clearly this is not the disposition of a kidnapper who is in charge of the situation.

Characterization is also developed through the characters' actions. Johnny wastes no time in establishing his lack of fear toward his kidnappers. Instead, he quickly turns the tables on them:

Yes, sir, that boy seemed to be having the time of his life. The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive himself. He immediately christened me Snakeeye, the Spy, and announced that, when his braves returned from the warpath, I was to be broiled at the stake at the rising of the sun.

Even his kidnapper notices that the child has forgotten that he is a captive, demonstrating Johnny's bold confidence despite what should have been a fearful situation.

Characters are further developed through their speech. When Sam gets up to walk around a bit, he claims that he needs to move to help his aching shoulder. Bill doesn't buy his excuse:

“You’re afraid. You was to be burned at sunrise, and you was afraid he’d do it. And he would, too, if he could find a match. Ain’t it awful, Sam? Do you think anybody will pay out money to get a little imp like that back home?”

Not only is it clear that Bill is becoming frightened of their kidnapped child, thus showing the unexpected power of little Johnny in this situation, but this dialogue also reveals that he believes they have made a mistake. Johnny is such a terror that he is no longer sure any parents would want this child returned to them. Bill's character is developed as being nervous, second-guessing himself and their plans.

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How does the author reveal character in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Understanding characters' personalities can be achieved through direct or indirect characterization. Direct characterization is when the personality or traits of a character are explicitly expressed by the author, another character, or the character himself. On the other hand, indirect characterization is when the reader must infer what the character is like based on implicit evidence. O. Henry uses both techniques to describe his characters in "The Ransom of Red Chief."

First, Johnny Dorset is the boy that Bill and Sam kidnap for ransom. He puts up a strong physical fight when he is taken away, which indirectly shows that he has a fighting personality rather than a docile one. Johnny does describe himself directly for his captors, as well:

"I like this fine. I never camped out before; but I had a pet 'possum once, and I was nine last birthday. I hate to go to school."

These direct comments explain that Johnny likes camping, hasn't done it before, had a possum, is nine years old, and hates school. No inference is needed to understand these little tidbits about Johnny's character.

O. Henry then gives the reader a little more insight into Johnny as he develops his character over the course of the story. For example, Johnny makes threats as he plays the role of Red Chief. He tells Bill that he will scalp him at daybreak and Sam will burn "at the stake at the rising of the sun." The men first think that these are merely idle threats, but the more they learn about the boy, the more they believe him. This adds suspense to the story because if the little boy really does do these things to these men, does that mean that he is a violent predator rather than the helpless victim?

The reader must read the rest of the story to discover more about the character of Johnny Dorset. When the sun does start to rise the next morning, Bill screams in horror as he finds Red Chief sitting on his chest with a knife in one hand and a handful of hair in the other. This image implies that Johnny really means to scalp this man! If it weren't for Sam stopping the assault, he may have, but that is left up to the reader to ponder. When Sam gets up before his promised burning at the stake, he tells Bill that his shoulder hurts and he's not trying to avoid the boy. Bill says the following that reveals more about Johnny:

"You're afraid. You was to be burned at sunrise, and you was afraid he'd do it. And he would, too, if he could find a match. Ain't it awful, Sam?"

Bill's testimony about Johnny characterizes the little boy as viewed by his kidnappers. He's that scary and threatening, apparently. Whether Johnny would actually hurt them is never revealed, but it's enough to know that he's intimidating enough to shake two adult men.

Finally, things escalate quickly for Bill after another day with Johnny. He explains to Sam the following:

"He put a red-hot boiled potato down my back. . . and then mashed it with his foot; and I boxed his ears. Have you got a gun about you, Sam?"

Some interesting facts are revealed about Bill, too. He finally gets enough of Red Chief's shenanigans to actually punch him a few times to get him to stop. Bill is so scared about being with Johnny that he is willing to use a gun to control him. This pattern of behavior continues and escalates throughout the story until the kidnappers pay Johnny's dad to take him back. The characters of the kidnappers are revealed as those who are not capable of handling a nine year-old boy or a proper kidnapping and ransom.

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Identify a word in "The Ransom of Red Chief" that reveals character and explain its significance.

The most interesting character in O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief" is the boy who is supposed to be the victim and the hostage of the two amateur kidnappers. The wild kid wants to be an Indian, and he calls himself Red Chief. Both the terms "Indian" and "Red Chief" reveal a lot about his character. They are used constantly throughout the story and serve as a constant reminder that the two incompetent crooks are dealing with a really wild captive. Either term should have warned Bill and Sam that they were going to have a lot of trouble with their hostage. He doesn't mind being kidnapped in the least. This is just the sort of adventure he enjoys. It provides a rare opportunity to act like the wildest sort of savage. The fact that he calls himself a "Chief" indicates that he wants to take control--and he does. When Sam hears Bill screaming in the middle of the night, he says:

I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief was sitting on Bill's chest, with one hand twined in Bill's hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill's scalp, according to the sentence that had been pronounced upon him the evening before. 

This is typical of the boy's behavior. He is not just mischievous but actually dangerous. Sam and Bill sound as if they are both bachelors who have never had any experience dealing with children. They are getting the same kind of treatment that inexperienced substitute teachers sometimes encounter when they are thrown into a classroom with a bunch of unruly students.  In the end, of course, they have to pay Red Chief's father to take him off their hands.

The moral of this comical story is one that O. Henry uses in a number of his stories. It can be expressed in two common sayings:

Crime does not pay.

Honesty is the best policy.

This moral is used, for example, in one of O. Henry's best stories, "A Retrieved Reformation." In that story Jimmy Valentine, the reformed safe cracker, writes a letter to a friend in which he expresses O. Henry's sincere feelings:

Say, Billy, I've quit the old business—a year ago. I've got a nice store. I'm making an honest living, and I'm going to marry the finest girl on earth two weeks from now. It's the only life, Billy—the straight one. I wouldn't touch a dollar of another man's money now for a million.

Either "Indian" or "Red Chief" seem like the best and easiest terms to use in answering your question.

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