The Ransom of Red Chief

by O. Henry

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

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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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