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A Particular Literary Style of O/henry in a Retrieved Reformation

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A Retrieved Reformation Analysis

In A Retrieved Reformation, by O. Henry, many avenues of literary devices are applied to create a compelling story for the reader. When analyzed, the plot, conflict, characters, tone, and theme provide further meaning to the story and intent of the author. Such a study is crucial to fully grasping a story’s elements.

The plot, set in the late 1800’s, is primarily evolved in a small town named Elmore. Before this, the story commences with the protagonist, Jimmy Valentine, leaving prison after serving ten months for a bank robbery. Before his release, he is advised by the chief officer to change his ways and finally lead a legal life. He insists that Jimmy is “not a bad fellow at heart”(Henry p.46-47), but the convict ignores this advice. He finds his crew when he returns home, and quickly prepares his tools for the next heist. Three safes are soon robbed; police detective Ben Price is promptly issued to arrest the burglar. While this antagonist begins tracking Jimmy, the thief arrives in the town of Elmore. As he starts scoping out the local bank, a young lady catches his eye and he becomes “another man”(Henry p.49). Under the alias of Ralph D. Spencer, Jimmy impulsively opens a shoe shop and begins to grow closer to the community and the lady, Annabel Adams. She is the daughter of the bank owner, which poses a threat to Jimmy if he intends to rob Mr. Adams. A year quickly passes and Jimmy is writing a note to a friend which implies that he is done robbing banks; any real change in his actions has not pointed this direction. He is also marrying Annabel in two weeks, and he assures his friend that she is worth any sacrifice in his paycheck. The next morning, Annabel’s father invites the story’s minor characters and Valentine to observe his new safe. During the display, one of the young girls was accidentally closed inside with the vault code not set. Jimmy decides to risk his cover by cracking the safe, and saves the girl. As he quietly leaves, he is confronted by Ben Price. Valentine willingly accepts defeat and prepares to be arrested, but Ben surprises him. He looks at Jimmy and says, “‘I guess you’re wrong about this, Mr. Spencer, . . . I don’t believe I know you, do I?’”(Henry p.53) Price turns and leaves Jimmy behind, now a free man.

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The conflicts of the story are easily identified with O. Henry’s forward style of writing. The first conflict is between the two major characters; Jimmy attempts to evade Ben Price as he pursues his arrest. “‘Yes, I want Mr. Valentine. Next time he goes to prison, he’s going to stay there until his time is finished.’ Ben Price knew how Jimmy worked. Jimmy would go from one city to another far away. He always worked alone. He always left quickly when he was finished. He enjoyed being with nice people. For all these reasons, it was not easy to catch Mr. Valentine.”(Henry p.49) While this does create some tension through the plot, the predominant conflict is within Jimmy. He battles with the two sides of his character: his desire to continue stealing, or make a new life and conceal his past identity. “He became another man. She looked away, and brighter color came into her face. Young men like Jimmy did not appear often in Elmore. Jimmy saw a boy near the bank door, and began to ask questions about the town. After a time the young lady came out and went on her way. She seemed not to see Jimmy as she passed him. ‘Isn’t that young lady Polly Simpson?’ asked Jimmy. ‘No,’ said the boy. ‘She’s Annabel Adams. Her father owns this bank.’ Jimmy went to the hotel, where he said his name was Ralph D. Spencer. He got a room there. He told the hotel man he had come to Elmore to go into business. How was the shoe business? Was there already a good shoe-shop?”(Henry p.49) These mixed motives lead the reader to the climax of the plot: The girl is locked in the safe, and Jimmy must decide his fate. This decision will alter him as a character, and change the denouement.

The primary actions that various characters make allow the reader to perceive their true intent. The audience can then label the characters based on key points in the text. Jimmy can be depicted as a round, dynamic character; he not only changes in the story, but reaches a near opposite. He transitions from a full time criminal to a family man who desires a good reputation and friendship. “I finished with the old business—a year ago. I have a nice shop. I’m living a better life, and I’m going to marry the best girl on earth two weeks from now. It’s the only life—I wouldn’t ever again touch another man’s money.”(Henry p.50) In the beginning of the story, his adverse actions construct a meaningful, complex character. This is performed with indirect characterization by the narrator and through the dialogue.“‘Me?’ said Jimmy in surprise. ‘I never broke open a safe in my life.’”(Henry p.47) “He gave some money to a blind man who sat there, asking for money, and then he got on the train.”(Henry p.47) But, the greatest of indirect characterization comes from Ben Price: “‘I guess you’re wrong about this, Mr. Spencer,’ he said. ‘I don’t believe I know you, do I?’”(Henry p.53) This is also develops Ben’s role in the story to a static and round character. He is static by always doing the right thing; he starts out to stop a criminal, and ends by not jailing a changed man. This also shows his depth; he does not enforce the law if it contradicts what is right.

The author cues us into these developing traits by using a third person omniscient narrator. This allows the author to be more free with driving the plot through directly describing thoughts or emotions. This freedom may let the author set a mood with their tone or other literary devices. The mood is set by O. Henry focusing on the major events of Jimmy’s reformation, not his illegal hobby. If the story focused on the heists, the conflict and atmosphere would be shifted from the main ideas that drive the plot. The tone he uses is whimsical and lighthearted, even in grim scenarios. The comical dialogue in the prison keeps the story from a serious tone; and the calm presence that Jimmy has during the climax keeps the reader relaxed, but still interested.

The greatest voice of the author does not come through bits of dialogue, but is the encompassing message which gives the tale meaning. Through the prison chief’s advice, Valentine’s radical change, and the effects it has on his life, one theme holds true: Anyone can change for the better, regardless of their past. This is consistent with the story and is a positive theme typical of the author.

Overall, the many devices employed form a memorable and light hearted story well worth reading. The theme is extremely relatable to the audience and readily accepted. O. Henry’s story can be analyzed through its plot, conflicts, characters, narrative style, and themes. Regardless of opinion, this display of the author’s literary skill well deserves the respect and admiration it has received.

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