O’Henry is arguably the master of twist endings. Whether it is Della and Jim finding out that they have sold their most prized possessions to buy each other nearly useless gifts in “The Gift of Magi“ or the drawing of a leaf assumed to be real in “The Last Leaf“, each of O’Henry’s intended ending catches the reader more off guard than the previous. More typical of his narrations is the plot that will normally comprise two people whose emotional interaction is stressed by different circumstances and in between, readers learn about the twist. These trademarks are also evident in the short story “After Twenty Years“, along with the author’s satirical humor and witty narration.
Another aspect of O’Henry’s storytelling is the inclusion of an aspect of humanity. Despite the characters’ traits, occupation, authority, position in society, there is always some form of human affection that scream from their actions. In this story, he advances this aspect of humanity through the theme of friendship and loyalty. Even with such few characters, O’Henry shows the power of friendship on a man so hardened by crime, like Bob.
On a chilly and windy evening, a policeman walks along the streets trying doors, looking here and there, making certain that everything is as it should be. He stops halfway along a block and a man standing in a dark spot begins to explain his presence at that time of the night. The man, Bob, says that he is waiting for his long-time friend, Jimmy Wells, with whom he made a promise twenty years ago to meet at this exact spot. After a short inquisitive conversation and a lit cigarette, the policeman walks away but not before inquiring for how long the man would wait for his friend. A moment later, a tall man walks towards Bob and convinced that it is Jimmy, the two walk down the street, coming around a corner below a drug store lights. Suddenly, Bob realizes that his companion is not the friend from his youth. Quickly, the reader learns that Jimmy is the first policeman and Bob is a wanted criminal. Overcame by their friendship and loyalty likewise, Jimmy sends a plainclothes policeman to arrest his friend instead.
Even with such few characters, O’Henry shows the power of friendship on a man so hardened by crime, like Bob.
The story first introduces the friendship theme when Bob attempts to justify his presence to the policeman. Bob talks about his friend with praises that affirm a deeply-rooted friendship. He explains, ” Jimmy Wells, my best chum, and the finest chap in the world.” The compassion and affection that is evident in Bob’s tone as he talks about Jimmy show the magnitude of their friendship. He even likens their relationship to that between two brothers who have grown up together.
This friendship has brought Bob a thousand miles from the West to see Jimmy, to keep a long-standing promise. It is the loyalty to this promise and on a larger scale, their friendship, that he says ” I came a thousand miles to stand in this door to-night, and it’s worth it if my old partner turns up.” Bob is also certain that his friend will keep the promise and show up. The conviction in his voice that Jimmy will keep the promise as well speaks volumes about their friendship.
True to Bob’s words, Jimmy shows up a few minutes to the agreed time, only not in the way the man from the West expected. Jimmy is as enthusiastic and committed to this meeting as Bob, which furthers the theme of friendship.
Just like in most of his plot twists, O’Henry advances the aspect of humanity in the story by revealing previously unknown truths of either the characters or a situation. First, it is revealed that Jimmy arrived at the chosen place and on time. Second, ‘Silky’ Bob is a hardened criminal from Chicago and has been on the watch by the police for a while now. The conflict created by this information and actions taken by both parties suggest a close friendship. Further, it shows the theme of loyalty and how this integrates with friendship.
From the beginning, it is obvious that Jimmy takes pride in his work. The story starts ” The policeman on the beat moved up the avenue impressively. The impressiveness was habitual and not for show…” Thus, it is no surprise that he chooses loyalty to his work and authority over his friendship with Bob. However, as the human he is and considering their friendship, he sends someone else to arrest his friend.
Through the twist ending, the story affirms the power of a mere human connection that creates a friendship so strong to withstands twenty years, in all ways.
What are your thoughts and questions on “After Twenty Years” by O’Henry? Let me know in the comment section.