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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Key characters, setting, and conflicts in "The Ransom of Red Chief"


In "The Ransom of Red Chief," key characters include Sam and Bill, the kidnappers, and Johnny, the mischievous boy they abduct, who calls himself Red Chief. The story is set in a small rural town in Alabama. Major conflicts arise from Johnny's unruly behavior, which turns the kidnappers' plans upside down, ultimately leading them to pay his father to take him back.

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Describe the main characters and setting of "The Ransom of Red Chief".

The setting of this story can be found early in the first paragraph. Sam tells his readers that he and Bill are down south in Alabama. We are not given any further details other than that, but it does become clear that Bill and Sam are working their kidnapping scheme in a small, rural town.

The basic outline of events is fairly simple. Bill and Sam consider themselves savvy criminals, but in reality, they are bumbling idiots. They hatch a kidnapping plan that will fund their next nefarious plot. The target is little Johnny Dorset. However, he winds up being way more trouble than he is worth. Bill especially is run ragged by Johnny's "games" and imagination. Bill and Sam attempt to get the ransom, but Ebenezer Dorset demands that the kidnappers pay him to take his own son back. The kidnappers agree, and they run out of town as fast as they can.

Most of the conflicts in this story are man versus man conflicts. Bill and Sam are in conflict with Johnny's antics. Additionally, Bill and Sam are in a small conflict with each other. Bill desperately wants to get rid of Johnny at any cost, but Sam wants to hold out for the potential ransom. Finally, there is a conflict that exists between the two kidnappers and Ebenezer Dorset. They want him to pay, but he wants the kidnappers to pay.

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Who are the protagonist and antagonist in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

In this story of ironic reversals, even the protagonists and antagonists are transposed.  The boy whom Bill and Sam kidnap becomes their foe and they, who have done the kidnapping and should be the antagonists, find themselves in the positions of protagonists.

Sam narrates at the beginning of the narrative:

We chose for our victim -- the only child of an influential citizen named Ebenezer Dorset.... Bill and I thought that Ebenezer would pay a ransom of two thousand dollars to get his boy back.  But wait till I tell you.

This red-headed boy of ten turns out to be more than Bill can handle; for instance, when the men kidnap Johnny Dorset, the son of Ebenezer Dorset, the bank manager and wealthiest man in Summit, Alabama, the boy immediately hits Bill with a brick, and he fights violently with the men:

That boy put up a fight like a wild animal.  But, at last, we got him down in the bottom of the carriage and drove away.

Then, while Sam returns the rented buggy, little Johnny reverses roles as he becomes a violent Indian who holds Bill captive. Bill tells Jim,

 "I'm Old Hank, the trapper, Red Chief's captive.  Im going to be scalped at daybreak.  By Geronimo!  That kid can kick hard."

Red Chief continues to terrorize Bill when Sam goes down the mountain where they are hiding in order to drop off the ransom note. When Mr. Dorset reads the note, he makes a counter-offer that the men pay him to take the boy off their hands, stipulating that it be at night so that no one can witness the boy's kidnap. So, the two kidnappers end up paying the father to reclaim his son, the initial victim who becomes the men's antagonist.

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Who is the protagonist in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Sam is supposed to be the protagonist in that he's the character who initiates the important action of the story. It's Sam who's mainly behind what he thinks is an ingenious plot to kidnap and ransom a wealthy prominent citizen's young son. However, as the story progresses, and little Johnny starts turning the tables on his hapless kidnappers, one could argue that he reverses the roles, becoming the protagonist as he inadvertently wrecks the two small-time crooks' best-laid plans. At the same time, he's also Sam and Bill's antagonist for precisely the same reason.

In a further bizarre role reversal, Johnny's father demands that Sam and Bill pay him for the privilege of returning Johnny. In completely upending our expectations, O. Henry playfully blurs the line between conventional roles, including those of protagonist and antagonist.

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Who is the protagonist in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

By definition, the protagonist is the main character. They are the one attempting to affect a change in themselves or the present situation. Then the deuteragonist comes into play. This is the sidekick to the main character. This character supports the protagonist's attempt to bring about the desired results. Next there is the antagonist or tritagonist. This character's main objective is to thwart the progress of the protagonist.   

In The Ransom of Red Chief, the story is told from Sam's perspective. He is the one who initiates the action.  That would make him the protagonist.

The sidekick to Sam is Bill Driscoll, or Hank as he is called by Red Chief. 

Johnny Dorset, or Red Chief, is the antagonist. All his actions result in the downfall of his captor's successful collection of the ransom money that they seek.

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In "The Ransom of Red Chief", who are the main characters?

Sam, the narrator and Bill Driscoll are the two kidnappers and the boy, Johnny, with "bas-relief" freckles and hair "the color of the cover of a magazines you buy...when you want to catch a train" are the main characters. Johnny, who renames himself Red Chief, controls situations so much that the kidnappers eventually "surrender" the boy to the father; in fact he becomes the principal character. For, all of the comic reversals in the plot center around him.

What is humorous and interesting in this story is that the original protagonist becomes the antagonist since it is Red Chief's behavior that defeats the sophisticated con men.  Twin's story has the "underdog" win in classical comedy form.

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What is the main conflict in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

Sam and Bill are a couple of con artists. Their problem and motivation is that they need money. They are always in need of money because they are obviously not very competent con artists.

Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with. 

They decide to try kidnapping a child, something with which these two crooks have never had any previous experience. The problem escalates because the child they choose to kidnap turns out to be more than they can handle. The boy thinks of himself as a wild Indian named Red Chief. He is violent and dangerous. They are afraid to go to sleep at night. They try to solve this unexpected problem without letting go of the entire ransom they expected to receive.

Bill begged me tearfully to make the ransom fifteen hundred dollars instead of two thousand. 

The boy's father Ebenezer Dorset is not the least bit anxious to get his son back. He knows the boy too well, and he evidently feels sure the kidnappers will be willing to get Red Chief off their hands on any terms. He finally replies to the ransom letter as follows:

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. 

The kidnappers' problems are finally resolved when they end up paying the boy's father the two hundred and fifty dollars to get rid of their hostage. Although kidnapping a child is a serious crime, O. Henry makes the whole episode funny and at the same time illustrates the moral that "Crime does not pay." O. Henry served several years in prison for embezzlement and met many men like Bill and Sam who thought they were clever tricksters but ended up behind bars. O. Henry wrote under a pen name because he was hiding from his past. He sincerely believed that honesty was really the best policy. In another story, "A Retrieved Reformation," he has his protagonist Jimmy Valentine, a one-time legendary safecracker, write to a friend as follows:

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. 

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Who is the main character in the story "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

As the title suggests, the main character of O. Henry's ironic story is the only son of Ebenezer Dorset, the boy who calls himself "Red Chief, the terror of the plains."  And, he is, indeed, a terror as he hurls a brick into the face of Bill, one of the kidnappers as he is caught.

Instead of being frightened, Red Chief is delighted to have Bill Driscoll with whom he can pretend to be a wild Indian.  Sam, the narrator comments,

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.

Of course, the irony is that Bill in effect becomes the captive and Red Chief the captor as he has Bill hit with rocks, tied, whipped, ridden like a horse, and on the ground with his hair pulled and a knife poised at his scalp.  So terrorized by Red Chief is Bill that he tells his partner that one more night of this boy's presence will send him to Bedlam [hospital for the insane in New York].

Knowing that his son is an "enfant terrible," Mr. Dorset offers to not pay the ransom, but take the boys off the men's hands if they pay him $250.  So, desperate to be rid of the boy who has physically abused them and made them fearful, the men agree.  Red Chief, "the terror of the plains," triumphs in his unruly behavior and fantastic imagination.

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What is the initial major conflict in The Ransom of Red Chief?

The conflict at the beginning of O. Henry's classic short story "The Ransom of Red Chief" is two men (Sam and Bill) in need of money.  As the story says in the opening lines, "it looked like a good thing."  Bill and Sam came up with what seemed like a good plan: kidnap a kid and ransom the kid for money.  To complete the plan, the men pick out a quiet town and a rich family with only one son.  They think that this will optimize the amount of ransom they can collect. Of course, the plan didn't work out when they kidnap Johnny, the most annoying kid in town.

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