When you spend time in jail, you get a new view on life. Since O’ Henry spent some time in jail for embezzling, his stories all seem to have a lawless element. Running from the law seems to be a big part of his short stories, and even more than his famous surprise endings, the obvious similarities between the stories, especially the lawlessness element, obscures the plots as just details. When you consider that 2 of the plots are about these grafting schemes, and the third one implies it as much, the themes are different, and they each are individual, but this is one way to convey three messages.
I will be writing about three short stories, all by O’ Henry. “Masters Of Arts,” “The Man Higher Up,” and the one that we all know, “After Twenty Years.” The plots are similar; they all have to do with white collar crime, “Grafting”.
In “Masters of Arts,” a clever machinator, Jimmy Keogh, decides that a president of a South American nation has a very weak detriment to his personality; his pride, and decides to exploit it. He finds a budding young artist from New York, Carolus White, lies about his fame in the US, and finally secures 10,000 dollars for Carolus to do a obscenely tasteless portrait of this president. Carolus cannot do it, he has artistic standards, and therefore loses the money. To create a contrast to this, the machinator takes a incriminating photo of the president, and proceeds to blackmail the president. However, at the moment of receiving the money, Keogh rips up the photo and does not request nor recive the money. He cannot blackmail, he has “standards”.
Juxtaposing this is the story “The Man Higher Up”. The entire story takes place in New York, where two friends are meeting over plates of pasta. One friend, Jeff Peters, is telling our narrator about his adventures grafting, where Jeff is saying that his pride took him away from burglary, but then cheated a lot of money away from a burglar.
Then our story, “After Twenty Years,” a story with a criminal and a old friend who wants to turn him in, but can’t, so he gets another person, a plain clothes man, to do the job.
The settings are very similar; at one point in all three stories, the main character is in New York. In two of the stories, the entire story, to some extent, is in New York. The time setting is also the same for all three stories, 1865-1950. It seems that O’ Henry wrote what he knew; his time and his place of habitat for the latter years of his life.
The characters are all very different in their habits and their personalities. It seems that O’ Henry gives enough information to do an in-depth character analysis for each of the main characters, even though they are short stories. In MOA, we have two characters, characterized indirectly, because their actions seem too hasty. Jimmy Keough seems like a brash young man in which the question is how low he can go with his plots, but he turns down $20,000 for simple personal standards. Carolus White desperately wants to go to Europe to study art, and had no problem lying to do such. But he shows restraint at the beginning of the plot, and at the end breaks down.
As a contrast, Jimmy Keough too breaks down, but only at the very end. A stark contrast to the characters of “The Man Higher Up,” in which Jeff Peters never shows restraint, nor do his criminally inclined friends. They show no restraint much like Silky Bob of “After Twenty Years'”. Silky Bob never thinks at the least he is going to be caught, until he is. All of O’ Henry’s characters seem very confident, especially in times when a normal person isn’t.
The theme is where the stories most differ. In Masters of Arts, the theme is summed up in this passage near the conclusion of the story,
‘” ‘ Carry,’ he [Keough] said absent mindedly, ‘you think a heap of your art, don’t you?’
‘ More,’ said White, frankly, ‘than has been for the financial good of myself and my friends’.’
‘I though you were a fool the other day,’ went on Keogh, quietly, ‘ and I’m no sure now that you wasn’t. But if you was, so am I. I’ve been in fsome funny deals, Carry, but I’ve always managed to scramble fair, and match my brains and capital against the other fellow’s. But when it come to–well, when you’ve got the other fellow cinched, and the screws on him, and he’s got to put up–why, it don’t strike me as being a man’s game,'” The theme being that everyone has standards they can’t cross, even in the morally deficient of society. In “The Man Higher Up” the theme is every person has potential, and you don’t really know who has it and who doesn’t, brought on by the surprise ending in which the winner at the time of the graft finds out that the one who looked like the loser now has all of the winner’s money invested back into him. We all know the theme of “After Twenty Years”; loyalty to a friend doesn’t wear thin even over time, even over crime.
The tone of the stories is the same- serious, matter of fact in all, except for “The Man Higher Up,” in which O’ Henry tells the story almost entirely in one man’s quotations, to create a Mark Twainian (Huckleberry Finnish) storyteller tone.
“‘And then along comes a fast freight which slows up a little at the town; and off of it drops a black bundle that rolls for twenty yard in a clouds of dust and then get up and begin to spit soft world and interjections. I see it is a young man broad across the face, dressed more for Pullmans than freights and with a cheerful kind of smile in spite of it all that make Phoebe Snow’s job look like a chimney sweep’s.'” The tones were all same, save for “The Man Higher Up,” in which when Jeff is not speaking, it is the same tone as “After Twenty Year”, but Jeff speaks almost all the time, creating a chance for O’ Henry to experiment with different tones.
The sudden unforgettable revelation of character; the vision of a world though another’s eyes; the capture of a moment in time. All this, the short story, at its best, is uniquely capable of conveying, for in it’s very shortness lies it’s greatest strength. O’ Henry, William Sydney Porter, whoever the name may be, in his short stories discovers depths of meaning in the causal word or action, he can suggest in a page what struggles to be said in a volume, which makes him uniquely worthy and capable of the study we put in his stories over this unit, and what makes him one of a select few; a master of the short story.