The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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What comedic elements are in "The Ransom of Red Chief"?

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The most important comedic element in “The Ransom of Red Chief” comes from the role-reversal at the heart of the story. Sam and Bill, the two hapless kidnappers, are supposed to be the ones in control. Yet little Johnny turns the tables on them by acting like the spoiled brat he is. Further comedy is to be had when Johnny's father demands that Sam and Bill pay him to take his son off their hands.

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Much humor is generated in "The Ransom of Red Chief" from unexpected characterization.

One would expect two kidnappers to be characterized as vicious and heartless and for a young boy who is snatched from his family to be characterized as fearful and timid. Yet this isn't the way these characters are developed at all.

Nearly as soon as the kidnappers arrive at their destination where they will hold young Johnny, they begin playing games with him—specifically, a game where they pretend to be "Indians." Bill himself takes an especially active role in the game, seeming to enjoy the world of make-believe that Johnny develops. Yet later, Johnny gets the upper hand on Bill, who awakens to the very real possibility that he is about to be scalped by Johnny, otherwise known as Red Chief in their games of pretend. This kidnapper becomes fairly terrified of this wild child and can't sleep with him around.

Johnny himself puts up a good fight early on. When the kidnappers try to lure him in, Johnny throws a piece of brick at Bill. At the campsite, he doesn't try to escape for home and even tells the kidnappers that he actually prefers this kidnapping to returning there:

I don't have any fun at home. I hate to go to school. I like to camp out. You won't take me back home again, Snake-eye, will you?

Again, this is not the expected character development, and Johnny's precocious personality finally proves too much for the men who have kidnapped him.

In the end comes the greatest comedic twist of the story—the kidnappers are forced to pay Johnny's father to take the child back. Their plans have been completely thwarted by a "boy of ten, with bas-relief freckles, and hair the color of the cover of the magazine you buy at the newsstand when you want to catch a train."

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Much of the humor in this very humorous short story comes from role-reversal. The hapless kidnappers, Sam and Bill, are supposed to be in charge of little Johnny Dorset, the boy they've just abducted for ransom. But over the course of his brief captivity, Johnny turns the tables on his kidnappers by driving them to distraction due to his brattish ways. Before long, he's in control of this particular relationship, to the extent that Sam and Bill realize they have no choice but to cut their losses and take the boy back home to his father.

When they do this, more humor is generated, once again from a role-reversal. Sam and Bill were supposed to kidnap little Johnny so that they could obtain a substantial sum of ransom money from his father. But when they bring him back home, they are shocked to hear Johnny's father demand that they pay him for the boy's return. One can reasonably infer from this demand that the boy is as much of an obstreperous little brat at home as he was when he was with Sam and Bill. In the end, the two wannabe master criminals have no choice but to pay up; anything to take Johnny Dorset off their hands.

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There are several different types of comedic elements included within the story "The Ransom of Red Chief," with multiple examples of each type of humor.

The speech pattern of Sam, the narrator of the story, includes expressions and descriptive phrases that employ tongue-in-cheek ironic humor. The name of the town where the original kidnapping was committed was Summit (usually meaning the top of a mountain or hill), but the place was described as being "as flat as a flannel-cake."

The speech of the boy includes all the energy and enthusiasm and ridiculous jumps in subject matter that can be imagined.

I hate to go to school. Rats ate up sixteen of Jimmy Talbot's aunt's speckled hen's eggs. Are there any real Indians in these woods? I want some more gravy. Does the trees moving make the wind blow? We had five puppies. What makes your nose so red, Hank? My father has lots of money. Are the stars hot?

The kinds of situations that arise as the bandits attempt to control their captive are full of comically ironic role-reversals, as the adults quickly discover they have no chance of containing the run-away imagination and uninhibited enthusiasm of this boy for the high adventure of acting out his fantasies as Red Chief, and later as the Black Scout. Bill, in particular, suffers greatly at the hands of Red Chief and evolves from being a willing participant in the kidnapping to sending the boy back home, reducing the amount of ransom being demanded, and finally advocating they concede and pay Ebenezer Dorset to reclaim the boy.

Sam," says he, "what's two hundred and fifty dollars, after all?...Besides being a thorough gentleman, I think Mr. Dorset is a spendthrift for making us such a liberal offer. You ain't going to let the chance go, are you?

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What comedic elements are used by O. Henry in the story "The Ransom of Red Chief?"

A comic story, play, or novel usually pivots on hyperbole (exaggeration) and reversal of expectations, and in this story, O. Henry does not disappoint.

Sam and Bill think it will be easy money for them to kidnap little Johnny and exact a handsome ransom from his father, the wealthy Mr. Dorset.

The comedic elements lie in the exaggerated way everything goes contrary to expectation. Johnny shows no reluctance to be kidnapped but comes along happily. Rather than terrifying the little Johnny by kidnapping him, the little boy terrifies his kidnappers. He attempts to scalp Bill as part of an Indian game, and attacks his kidnappers with a hot potato and a rock. By the end of the story, rather than getting a ransom, the hapless kidnapper duo pays Mr. Dorset $250 to take the wildly energetic child off their hands.

We laugh because this is a classic trickster tale, in which the seemingly powerless person bests the two who appear to hold all the power.

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What comedic elements are used by O. Henry in the story "The Ransom of Red Chief?"

The Ransom of Red Chief includes irony, role reversals with comic results, unexpected situations and actions, and outcomes that glorify the persons who are usually victims. O. Henry is a master in creating humor with all of these devices.

The location of the kidnapping is the town of Summit, which is not a summit but perfectly flat. The ten year old "victim" of the kidnapping refuses the candy offered to entice him into the wagon, then takes charge of the hideout by doing what all energetic ten year olds do, only more so. Johnny talks nonstop, is constantly active and demands that Sam and Bill keep active with him, acts upon his ideas and dreams of how to keep his adult captives under control, and generally turns the situation upside down. His father's suggestion that the "kidnappers" pay him in order to obtain their release is the ultimate confirmation of the complete failure of the "good thing" that Sam and Bill were expecting.

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