The Ransom of Red Chief Cover Image

The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Student Question

In "The Ransom of Red Chief," how do dialect and figurative language contribute to the text's meaning and tone?

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"The Ransom of Red Chief" exhibits the homespun humor and local color often employed by Mark Twain along with the signature ironic twist that is so characteristic of O. Henry. Without doubt, the use of dialect and figurative language which at times gravitates toward hyperbole contributes greatly to the comic reversals and ironic tone as readers are easily able to imagine the action and compromising positions the perpetrators of the kidnapping find themselves in.

In the second paragraph of this hilarious story, the narrator tells the reader:

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 real estate deal in western Illinois with.

Here dialect is used to demonstrate the lack of education ("Bill and me") that the kidnappers possess. In addition, "we needed just two thousand dollars more" does not seem logical to say if their capital is less than that amount (six hundred dollars), so the reader can rather safely assume that Bill and Sam are not especially clever or intelligent.

The father was respectable and tight, a mortgage fancier and a stern, upright collection-plate passer and forecloser.... Bill and me figured that Ebenezer would melt down for a ransom of two thousand dollars in a flash.

Further, the use of "tight" and the description of the religious hypocrisy of the father who will "melt down" for the ransom indicate that "Bill and me" are not sophisticated criminals. Nevertheless, such crude descriptions are often very funny. For instance, Sam wakes to hear Bill:

They weren’t yells, or howls, or shouts, or whoops, or yawps, such as you’d expect from a manly set of vocal organs—they were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. 

This is one of the comic reversals as the red-haired son of Ebenezer is pretending he is a wild Indian. Then, after Sam goes onto a hit to "reconnoiter," he looks down at the town and thinks:

“Perhaps,” says I to myself, “it has not yet been discovered that the wolves have borne away the tender lambkin from the fold. Heaven help the wolves!” says I, and I went down the mountain to breakfast. 

Here the use of the metaphoric "lambkin" is certainly ironic as is "the wolves"; such usage contributes to the humor, as does Sam's comment "Heaven help the wolves." His and Bill's desperation is comic. Finally, with the ironic twist of the men's receiving a letter from Ebenezer Dorset in reply to their ransom note, offering to take back his son Johnny provided they return him in the dark and pay two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, the comedy of this tale is complete.

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