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O. Henry Research Paper

The purpose of this report is to establish a connection between “A Retrieved Reformation,” which O. Henry wrote in the late 19th and early 20th century, just after the civil war and O. Henry’s life experiences. This story is very representative of the author’s life such as the dedication both the author and the main character of the story had for the woman they loved. O. Henry also used extremely accurate and vivid descriptions to make the reader feel as though he/she is actually in the early 20th century. The author takes us through a roller coaster of emotions and in the end allows the reader to decide for him/herself what happens to Jimmy’s and Annabel’s relationship via a surprise ending.

The literary piece that the reader chose is “A Retrieved Reformation.” The story, after taking the reader through a wide range of emotions, has a shocking ending. The ending is that after all the work that Ben Price undergoes to hunt down Jimmy Valentine; he pretends to not even “recognize” him and lets him go free. In the story, when Ben Price finds Jimmy Valentine, he says “don’t believe I recognize you. Your buggy’s waiting for you, ain’t it?” (“A Retrieved Reformation”) When O. Henry wrote this story, surprise endings were very popular. Today, they have grown out of fashion. For example, a biography of him says that “He was also addicted to the surprise ending, a type of story that delighted the readers of his day but has long since been out of fashion.” (qtd. in “O. Henry”) The story also emphasizes how greatly love can change a person’s life. This is evident in the story because before Jimmy meets the daughter of the bank owner, he is a criminal and is a professional safecracker. After he meets the girl, he gives up the life of a criminal to live an honest one as the owner of a shoe store. He even uses his safecracking skills to break a little girl out of the bank vault risking imprisonment. There are archetypes present in the story are the numbers three and seven. In the story, the number three is the number of months out of his four year sentence Jimmy expected to serve and the number seven is the time in the morning that Jimmy was to be unlocked from his jail cell. Almost all of the elements of a short story are present and play important roles in the story. The climax of the story was spellbinding as Jimmy makes the ultimate sacrifice of freedom and decides to crack the safe and free Agatha. This was followed by the unexpected falling action whereby Ben decides not to arrest Jimmy.

O. Henry is actually the pen name of William Sydney Porter. He was born on September 11th, 1862 and when he was young he had many jobs such as ranch hand, bookkeeper, bank- teller and eventually as the editor of a humorous weekly, The Rolling Stone. This famous author was even arrested for stealing bank funds and served more than three years of his sentence in a federal prison. The author became well known for his surprise endings and even though his surprise endings has long since been out of fashion, he was so comical and he understood the human body and personality so well that he will probably be a famous writer for a long time to come. O. Henry was such a good writer that Hollywood made a movie out of five of his stories. He had an award named after him, dubbed the O. Henry award established in 1918 by the Society of Arts and Sciences. Later in life he had some financial problems and he was an alcoholic. Eventually, in 1910, these two factors greatly contributed to his death.

The time period when O. Henry was growing up and writing was in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was alive only ten years after the civil war ended, so that might have had some impact on a number of his stories. While he was growing up, he also worked many jobs. “In 1882 he went to Texas, where he worked on a ranch, in a general land office, and later as teller in the First National Bank in Austin.” (“Henry. O”) These jobs might have affected the topics or the events of some of his stories. He also stole funds directly from a bank and had to go to jail for it, so that means that he probably had some financial problems. O. Henry also stayed in Texas, North Carolina, and Honduras for lengthy periods of time and some of his stories reflect his experience in those locations. His stay in Honduras influenced his first book “Cabbages and Kings” and his experience in Texas allowed him to describe with greater accuracy tales of the Texas range in “Heart of the West.”

One of the main connections between the book and the author’s life and the story is that when he was young, O. Henry got arrested for stealing bank funds, and the story starts off with Jimmy in jail for cracking safes. Another similarity is that they both served far less time in jail than they were supposed to. For example, Jimmy only served ten months of a four year sentence and O. Henry only served three years in the federal jail after receiving a lenient sentence from the authorities. Jimmy’s and O. Henry’s personalities are also similar in that they are both good people at heart, and in both cases, a woman was involved who had a profound effect on the main character/person. For example, in the story, the daughter of the bank manager caused Jimmy to change into an entirely different person. In real life, O. Henry’s wife fell deathly ill and he returned to the United States to be with her, and since he returned, he got convicted, stood trial, and served his time in prison. Jimmy’s life was also modeled after O. Henry’s, in that they both started out illegally, going to jail, and then taking up a more honest lifestyle, as a shoe store owner and as an author, respectively. Also, once they took up a more honest lifestyle, they obtained the respect of the community, with Jimmy making many friends and being a social success, and with O. Henry becoming a world-famous author.

There were many connections between the literary piece and the time period. For example, in the beginning of the story, Jimmy is assiduously stitching uppers and today machines do that, but people did it back in the early 20th century. Also, in the story, Jimmy is a safecracker and in the 20th century that was a very serious problem and crime. In addition to, the type of safe used in the story was very common to that time period and it would be considered very outdated today. Since there is a huge difference in the monetary value of items between the early 20th century and today, it is clear that it was written during that time period, because it only cost Jimmy $900 to have his safecracking tools made and stealing $5000 was sufficient a crime to catch the attention of a major detective. Also, in the story, a bank played a major role, and in the early 20th century, banks played a major role in the economy. The method of travel, a horse and buggy and railroad travel were also very popular during that time period.

One of the main similarities between the author’s life and the time period in which he lived was that as a child, O. Henry attended a one-room schoolhouse and those only existed at that time. Also, O. Henry edited a newspaper called The Rolling Stone, and that was popular and existed during the early 20th century. O. Henry also worked as a ranch hand during the early parts of his life and that was a very common job during the late 19th century. Lastly, the stories he wrote were riddled with surprise endings and that has long since been out of fashion, but was popular in O. Henry’s time.

A similarity between Jimmy and O. Henry is that they both stole money from banks. However, O. Henry died being an alcoholic, whereas Jimmy never took a drink. Similarly, O. Henry’s second marriage goes bad, but it is up to the reader to decide how it turns out between Annabel and Jimmy. Another contrast is that at the end of the story, Jimmy is quite affluent, owning a shoe store, while O. Henry dies in financial ruin.

In conclusion, both the author’s personal experience and time period he lived in had a strong influence on the story “A Retrieved Reformation.” Jimmy and O. Henry stole money from a bank, they were treated leniently, only staying in jail for a fraction of their sentence, and both men changed their names when they decided to live an honest life. Jimmy and O. Henry were both prepared to sacrifice freedom for love. At the end of the story the similarities between the two men are very different with O. Henry dying in financial ruin, bad marriage, and alcoholism, while at the end of the story, Jimmy had an affluent business and potentially a wife that he loved very much.

Works Cited List

1) “O. Henry.” Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online, 2011. Web. 10 May. 2011.

2) “Henry. O” Encyclopedia Britannica Micropaedia. 1991 ed. (encyclopedia) 163-170.

3) O. Henry. “A Retrieved Reformation” The Language of Literature. McDougal Littell 2003 Pages


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