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The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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Discussion Topic

The theme and moral lesson of "The Ransom of Red Chief."

Summary:

The theme of "The Ransom of Red Chief" centers on the unpredictability of human nature and the consequences of underestimating others. The moral lesson is that actions driven by greed and deceit can backfire, leading to unexpected and humorous outcomes, as seen when the kidnappers end up paying the boy's father to take him back.

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What is the theme of "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

There are a number of themes that can be identified in “The Ransom of Red Chief.”  For me, the two main themes can be summed up in proverbs: “don’t bite off more than you can chew,” and “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

These are not the only themes of this story.  If you follow the link below, you will find a very good discussion of this story’s themes.  The discussion says that this story is partly about sophisticated city people being given their comeuppance by supposedly rustic rural types.  In other words, a theme of this story is the greater common sense of rural people when compared to city people.

However, I would still argue that my two proverbs capture the real meaning of this story.  First, we see that the two kidnappers have clearly attempted something that is beyond their capabilities.  They are trying to keep a child captive who is much more than they can control.  They have done something that many people do in that they have tried something that is beyond them.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, they are simply victims of bad luck.  Things happen in life that we do not anticipate.  This is where Robert Burns gets his line about the best laid plans of mice and men and where the idea of Murphy’s Law comes from.  In theory, their plan was a good one.  Most parents would pay money to get their kidnapped child back.  However, through sheer bad luck, Bill and Sam picked the wrong child.  Something that could go wrong with their plan did go wrong and their plan went awry.

For me, these are the main themes of this story.  The story tells us that we should not try for too much.  We should not take on things that are beyond our capability.  It also tells us that sometimes, we will make decent plans that ought to work but something will go wrong because that is the way of the world.   

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What lesson was the author conveying in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

In "The Ransom of Red Chief," the irony of the situation and the verbal facility of the first-person narrator go some way toward disguising the true nature of the situation. The two kidnappers are much as one would expect professional criminals to be: cynical and predatory. They plan the abduction of a child in order to obtain capital for a fraud on a larger scale. The boy, according to Sam, "put up a fight like a welter-weight cinnamon bear," which means they had to use force and violence to abduct him.

The comedy of a situation in which two hard-bitten criminals are no match for a ten-year-old child does not detract from the fact that these men are criminals and, in other circumstances, are capable of causing much suffering. The humiliations they endure at the hands of Red Chief, therefore, all point to the message that "crime doesn't pay." This is underscored by the fact that Sam and Bill literally have to pay $250 to get rid of their burden.

A secondary message, which is present in practically all of O. Henry's work, is that things are seldom what they seem. The characteristic twist in the tale of his stories teaches the reader that life is constantly surprising. This is signaled in the first sentence of "The Ransom of Red Chief" by the words, "It looked like a good thing: but wait till I tell you."

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What is the moral lesson in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

There are a number of important moral lessons for children in "The Ransom of Red Chief." Probably the most instructive is that crime doesn't pay. One could also say that the story can help to teach children that there is no easy way to make money, especially if it involves breaking the law. The two bungling criminals hit upon what they think is a surefire way to make money, but not only do they end up with nothing, they're outsmarted by a kid who makes them look like complete idiots. Clearly, the two would-be master criminals have failed to pay heed to the old adage "Be careful for what you wish for; you might just get it." This is a very useful life lesson for everyone, but especially for children.

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What is the theme of the short story "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

O. Henry wrote several stories in which the theme could be stated simply as the old adage "Crime does not pay." In "The Ransom of Red Chief" the two crooks have been traveling all over the country trying to make money dishonestly. They are obviously getting old but they still haven't accumulated any money. They have to camp out and sleep on the ground. They try to commit a truly serious crime, kidnapping, which could get then life in prison if caught. They end up having to pay the last of their money to get rid of the intended victim. The story is treated comically, but the message is serious.

In O. Henry's "A Retrieved Reformation" Jimmy Valentine writes a letter to a friend which states O. Henry's theme in plain words:

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. 

And the same theme can be read into O. Henry story "After Twenty Years." The viewpoint character "Silky" Bob has been committing crimes all over the West for twenty years. Now as he is entering middle age he is on the lam and apparently only has one friend in the world. But that friend has him arrested and sent off to prison. Obviously crime has not paid for "Silky" Bob.

O. Henry spent several years in prison for embezzlement and saw many criminals with his own eyes. He knew what he was talking about. 

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What is the theme of the short story "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

One theme is best expressed  by the Biblical proverb "He who sets a snare shall fall into it."  This is exactly what happened to the two Midwestern kidnappers when they tried to get ransom money and got trapped in their own scheme instead. (By the way, in literature this is called 'poetic justice,' and is sometimes referred to as 'dramatic irony when there is a complete reversal of a situation,suchas in this story).

Another theme is that things are not always as they seem. The first hint of this is the name of the town itself, Summit, which paradoxically was as flat as a pancake. Then the  parents who are supposed to be worried sick about the whereabouts of their precious offspring are not so keen on paying or even taking him back. Finally, the "poor little rich kid" who is to be at the kidnappers' mercy turns into a real tyrant, so much that the kidnappers are ready to pay to have him taken off their hands.

Bear in mind, though, that the story is written as a kind of spoof or joke, so don't be looking for any kind of deep meaning or significance here. This is a tale basically written (and to be read) for pleasure, so just enjoy!

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What is the theme of the short story "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

This is a highly entertaining story about how 2 hardened criminals come up against a situation that they can't handle, in the unexpected form of a precocious little boy.  There is a strong theme of the underdog coming out on top.  You have a kid-a bit imaginative and irritating, but a kid nonetheless, that drives the characters so completely insane that they end up paying the kid's father to take him back.  It is a complete reversal of their best-laid plans, and Bill, after the kid is gone, states,

"In ten minutes I shall cross the Central, Southern and Middle Western States, and be legging it trippingly for the Canadian border."

and he gets out of there as fast as he can before little chief can somehow get back into his life.  The underdog in this situation was the supposed victim, the small, innocent child that is so cruelly kidnapped and held prisoner.  But, he wins out in the end, because he is not your average ten-year-old kid.  He isn't a "country bumpkin" as they had been expecting, so the slick city criminals are bested by this extraordinary underdog of a kid.

I hope that helps a bit; I provided a link to a more thorough discussion of the "underdog" theme, and that should be useful also.  Good luck!

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What is the theme of the short story "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

The larger theme in "The Ransom of Red Chief" is one that O. Henry used in some of his other stories. It is best expressed in the adage "Crime does not pay." The narrator opens the story this way:

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

Bill and Sam expect to get two thousand dollars as ransom for the wildcat boy they kidnap. Instead they end up paying his father two hundred and fifty dollars just to take him off their hands.

In O. Henry's story "After Twenty Years" the author contrasts two old friends who have led different lives. Jimmy Wells has become a policeman and is content. No doubt he has a wife and children and a nice home. He has a steady job and can look forward to a regular pension for the rest of his life when he retires.  'Silky' Bob has become a crook and has apparently made a lot more money than Jimmy; but he had been on the run all his life and has missed out on the truly important things in life, including a home and family and a circle of good friends. He has an abnormal existence with no security and the constant threat of being arrested. At the end of the story, Bob is being taken off to jail and may have to serve a long prison sentence after he gets to Chicago.

In O. Henry's well-known story "A Retrieved Reformation" the hero Jimmy Valentine is a successful and notorious safecracker. But he falls in love and goes straight. He realizes that "Crime does not pay," and that "Honesty is the best policy" after he falls in love with a lovely small-town girl who sincerely believes in him. He writes to an old pal 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.  

Jimmy will not be making spectacular hauls of stolen money, but he will have a peaceful life, a good reputation, stability, a beautiful wife, a home, and no doubt a number of children. Criminals like Sam and Bob in "The Ransom of Red Chief" are always on the run. They have to be. When they make a little money they have to use it to flee the scene of their latest crime. They have been petty con men for years, but we see them driving an old car and sleeping on the ground.

O. Henry was a pen name. The author was afraid to use his real name because he was hiding from his past. He served over three years in a state prison for embezzlement. He knew from personal experience and from observation of the many criminals he met in prison that crime does not pay and that honesty is the best policy. 

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What is the theme of the short story "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

"The Ransom of Red Chief," a short story by O. Henry, is a classic because of its brilliant irony. The focus of the story, an image or concept that the reader keeps in mind while reading and that the story action is built around, is the "ransom." Ransom is an amount of money demanded by a kidnapper to return the stolen person. The story begins by discussing the financial situation of Sam and his partner Bill. They need $2000 to be able to pull off a bigger swindle, so they kidnap the child of a prominent person in town. 

As the story progresses, Bill and Sam are both tormented by the boy, and they begin to doubt that even a loving parent would pay money to get the rowdy child back. Decreasing the amount of the ransom, they end up demanding only $1500. After a harrowing day with the child, Bill sends him away, willing to get out of the predicament they are in without getting any money--zero ransom. However, Red Chief has followed him back.

Finally, Ebenezer Dorset, the boy's father, sends a reply to the ransom letter offering to accept $250 payment from the petty criminals to take his son off their hands. They agree. They find that some things are worth more than money, and some things they are unwilling to do even for money, such as live with a vicious and unruly child. The focus on the ransom moves the action of the story along and provides the final ironic twist ending. 

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