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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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How do the criminals evolve in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

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The change in their situation and in the mental attitudes of the criminals is what gives humor to "The Ransom of Red Chief."  The fault of the criminals is that they underestimate the underdogs. From their initial assumption that the town of Summit, Alabama, holds only backward and foolish people, to their midjudgment of the red-haired, freckle-faced boy, the story develops an ironic tone with hilarious comic-reversals. 

When Bill suggests tot he boy, "Would you like to have a bag of candy and a ride?" the boy catches Bill nearly in the eye with a piece of brick.  When the men do capture him, "That boy put up a fight like a welter weight-cinnamon bear." Once captured, however, the boy delights in his captivity, having a playmate in Bill whom he proceeds to torture by kicking and scratching him.  As they sleep in the cave at night, the narrator, Sam, sleeps fitfully, dreaming of being held captive.  He awakens to "indecent, terrigying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars.  It is an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak."  The boy, who has named himself "Red-Chief" sits upon Bill's chest while attempting to scalp him.  From being the victimizer, Bill has become the victim.

Matters worsen for Bill as the narrator leaves to "reconnoiter" the "yeomandry" whom he believes are searching for the boy.  But all is quiet in town. When he returns to Bill, fear again has overtaken the man. He is breathing hard and tells the narrator that "Red-Chief" has placed a hot, boiled potato down his back.  After the boy steps away he is seen whirling a sling; the men must dodge the stones hurled at them. Now they both are victims.

Also, a result of the kidnapping of this boy, the relationship between the men deteriorates.  Bill accuses Sam of being "King Herod."  He begs Sam not to live him alone.  Then, from being the victimizers, the men become the victims.  Their hopes of making money from Mr. Dorset are dashed when they receive a response to their ransom note.  It states "counter-proposal"  to their ransom demand of $1,500.00 that Mr. Dorset will make.  If they will pay $250.00, he will take his son Johnny off their hands.

Outraged, Sam glances at Bill, who has "the most appealing look in his eyes that I ever saw on the face of a dumb or talking brute."  When they return Johnny, Mr. Dorset tells them he can only hold the boy for about ten minutes while they run away.  Although fat and a poorer runner than Sam, Bill, concerned only about himself, makes it "a mile and a half out of Summit" before Sam can catch up.

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In O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief," how do the criminals change?

When someone changes his or her thoughts or feelings in a dramatic way from the beginning of a story to the end, he or she is called a dynamic character. In O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief," both of the criminals, Bill and Sam, learn a lesson that changes their minds about the benefits and lucrativeness of kidnapping. For example, at the beginning when they decide to kidnap a child to make a quick buck, the reasoning behind their thinking is as follows:

"Philoprogenitiveness, says we, is strong in semirural communities; therefore, and for other reasons, a kidnapping project ought to do better there than in the radius of newspapers that send reporters out in plain clothes to stir up talk about such things."

First of all, the word philoprogenitiveness is a noun that describes parents' strong love for their children. Thus, the criminals believe that parents in a rural community would pay any amount in order to get back a kidnapped child. These men haven't met the Dorsets, though. After a couple of days with Johnny Dorset, the criminals learn that not all parents will pay anything for the safe return of children. They also learn that kidnapping is neither beneficial to their health, nor is it lucrative. Johnny does some of the following things to change Bill and Sam's minds about kidnapping: 

  • When offered candy, Johnny throws a piece of a brick at Bill's eye.
  • He fights "like a welterweight cinnamon bear."
  • He likes camping out and doesn't want to go home.
  • He almost scalps Bill and threatens to burn Sam at the stake.
  • He puts a hot potato down Bill's back and stomps on it with his foot.
  • He throws rocks that hit Bill in the head.
  • He plays horsey with Bill and rides him all day long. 

Bill is the first to show signs of being a dynamic character when he tells Sam the following:

"You know, Sam . . . I've stood by you without batting an eye in earthquakes, fire, and flood--in poker games, dynamite outrages, police raids, train robberies, and cyclones. I never lost my nerve yet till we kidnapped that two-legged skyrocket of a kid."

Fortunately for them, Mr. Dorset knows that the kidnappers will discover what a handful their son is and want to return him. Ironically, and to the kidnappers' relief, Mr. Dorset offers them a way out of their own scheme. The culminating event that proves that the criminals have changed their minds about kidnapping Johnny is when they pay Mr. Dorset $250 to give the boy back rather than making any money. By paying Mr. Dorset, the criminals admit defeat and demonstrate that they have changed their minds about the benefits of the kidnapping scheme.

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