Themes and Meanings
“The Ransom of Red Chief” is not simply a story in the O. Henry tradition of surprise endings; it is also a story in the pattern of classical comedy, which assures the reader that sometimes in this world the underdog can win. Generally, however, slaves or servants, wives or lovers, have prevailed by outwitting their masters. In “The Ransom of Red Chief,” the kidnappers are defeated not by any scheme devised by Johnny but simply by his nature. Johnny is, himself, the ultimate ten-year-old terror, certainly worse than most small boys his age but not so unlike them as to be a monster. Part of the humor of the story comes from Johnny’s relationship to the generic ten-year-old boy. Like the generic boy, he asks questions, rambles, fantasizes, and enlists playmates. While Sam and Bill could have coped with the average ten-year-old, they are helpless in Johnny’s hands because Johnny is not average. He is tougher, meaner, and wilder than the ten-year-old whom these street-smart criminals thought they were victimizing.
A second element in the underdog theme involves the city and the country. The sophisticated con men, Sam and Bill, select Summit, Alabama, for the scene of their crime because they think that the country bumpkins will be easy to fool: their law officers inept, their bloodhounds lazy, and their weekly rural newspapers ineffectual. Sam’s visit to the bewhiskered, tobacco-chewing citizens of Poplar Grove is related with unconcealed contempt. However, a small rural boy and his practical father defeat the crooks without even resorting to the law or the newspapers. The implication is that just as some children are tougher than adults, some rural people are tougher than city people. Sam and Bill have erred in selecting underdogs.
They have certainly erred in casting Ebenezer Dorset as an underdog. Their original information should have warned them. The man is stingy and mean, a “mortgage-fancier,” a “forecloser.” However, Sam and Bill think of him only as a father, who customarily is indeed the underdog when his only child has been kidnapped. The father, however, knows his son, knows him well enough to insist that he be returned when the neighbors could not object. A tough man himself, he does not underestimate the toughness or the nastiness of his only son, a boy whom even he can control for no more than ten minutes. Furthermore, Ebenezer Dorset knows what things are worth, and he can estimate the value to the kidnappers of being relieved of Johnny.
The rural father and the rural son, then, do not need to outwit the kidnappers. They simply outwait them. To the reader’s delight, the story suggests that a kidnap victim and his father can be the instruments of poetic justice, leaving the criminals both physically and financially defeated by their seeming inferiors.