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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Student Question

Why is Red Chief's father's response in "The Ransom of Red Chief" ironic?

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The reply from Red Chief's father to the ransom demand is doubly ironic. First, it is ironic because the two kidnappers were expecting to be paid to release Johnny to his father and instead his father demanded payment of $250 to take the little hellcat back. What is also ironic in this situation is that the father's reply comes after Sam and Bill have had all kinds of trouble dealing with Red Chief and so they are not particularly surprised or indignant when they receive the father's letter. Instead, they both consider the father's counter-proposition pretty reasonable, considering the problems they have been having with his son.

The father's letter is interesting in its formal tone and its understatement.

Gentlemen: I received your letter to-day by post, in regard to the ransom you ask for the return of my son. I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night, for the neighbours believe he is lost, and I couldn't be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back.

Very respectfully,
EBENEZER DORSET.

Mr. Dorset does not say anything about his son's typically wild behavior. But he suggests that the neighbors might react with violence against anyone who brought little Johnny back. He does not seem the least bit anxious to have the boy returned. 

The father's letter is ironic, both because of his counter-proposition and because the two kidnappers immediately take it seriously. They regard the polite letter as fair and reasonable. Their own letter demanding $1500 in ransom suddenly seems wildly unreasonable. They return the boy without considering attempting any further negotiation. 

The story is a good example of situational irony, which is defined as an incongruity between what is expected and what actually occurs. As Sam says at the beginning of the story:

It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you.

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Explain why the reply of Red Chief's father is an example of irony.

The Red Chief’s father, Ebenezer Dorset, received the ransom letter from the kidnappers and in their letter they asked for 1,500 dollars in exchange for Dorset’s son. Ironically, Ebenezer replied and stated that the kidnappers pay him 250 dollars so he could take back his son. In a turn of events, the kidnappers were required to pay a 'ransom' so they could stop their torment at the hands of the Red Chief.

Gentlemen: I received your letter to-day by post, in regard to the ransom you ask for the return of my son. I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands.- Ebenezer Dorset in response to the kidnappers' letter.

Sam and Bill, the kidnappers, were short of 2000 dollars for their fraudulent business. They decided to kidnap Ebenezer’s son so they could raise the amount from the ransom money. However, they did not conduct a thorough background check on their target and little did they know that the boy was a menace. They realized this after they kidnapped the boy and it was quite peculiar that not even the authorities came in search for the boy. The Red Chief tormented and terrorized his captors and rejected their attempts to take him back home. When Ebenezer offered to take the boy back including the 250 dollars, the kidnappers were relieved. They saw this as the best opportunity to get rid of the menace.

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Why is the reply from Red Chief's father an example of irony?

The boy in this story was kidnapped. In a standard kidnapping, the family of the victim must pay to get their beloved returned to them. That's certainly what the kidnappers thought was going to happen in this story. Remember that the father is rich (at least in the kidnappers' eyes), and that they plan to ask the father for $2000 to return him?

What happens when they send their demand? The father insists that they (the kidnappers) will pay him to accept Red Chief back. That's exactly the opposite of what they expected to happen. It shows that the situation is not as they understand it to be--and it shows that the father knows very well how the kidnappers have gotten in over their heads.

A ransom is usually paid in one direction, but in the father's response, it will flow the other way. That's an anti-ransom, which is pure irony.

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