The Ransom of Red Chief: The Humor and Underdog Theme

Categories: Ransom


"The Ransom of Red Chief," penned by the renowned American writer William Sydney Porter, widely known as O. Henry, stands as a testament to O. Henry's signature style characterized by clever wordplay, humor, and unexpected plot twists. Written at the turn of the 20th century, the story offers a delightful narrative reminiscent of a blend between "Home Alone" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" In the following analysis, we explore the story's distinctive elements, unraveling its humor, and delving into the theme of the underdog.

Book Summary

The backdrop of the narrative is rural Alabama, where two characters, Bill Driscoll and Sam, concoct a plan to secure an additional $2000 for a fraudulent town-lot scheme. The self-educated duo, with a penchant for using grandiose words, hatches a kidnapping scheme targeting Johnny Dorset, the only child of Ebenezer Dorset, a "mortgage fancier."

Their well-thought-out plan takes an unexpected turn when Johnny, a mischievous nine-year-old, transforms into the formidable "Red Chief" during their abduction.

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What ensues is a series of comical and absurd events, as Johnny, reveling in the idea of camping, subjects his captors to a barrage of antics. The kidnappers find themselves at the mercy of Johnny's sadistic imagination, enduring everything from near-scalping to a red hot potato shoved down a shirt.

As Bill and Sam attempt to ransom Johnny for $1500, Mr. Dorset counters with an offer to take Johnny back for $250, cautioning them about the potential reaction of the neighbors who believe Johnny is gone for good. Ultimately, the story unfolds to reveal that Johnny's wild nature and unpredictability become the kidnappers' undoing.

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The tale concludes with a hilarious and ironic twist as they return Johnny home.

Analysis of the Book

"The Ransom of Red Chief" goes beyond O. Henry's penchant for surprise endings; it embodies the elements of classical comedy, asserting the triumph of the underdog. The central figure, Johnny, disrupts the conventions of the generic ten-year-old boy, embodying a caricature of mischief and wildness. The humor arises from Johnny's relentless antics and the kidnappers' inability to cope with a child who surpasses the average ten-year-old in toughness and wit.

The story further explores the theme of the underdog by contrasting the sophistication of the city-dwelling con men, Sam and Bill, with the perceived naivety of the rural setting in Summit, Alabama. The kidnappers' assumptions about easy deception are shattered as Johnny's unruly nature proves insurmountable. This theme extends to the humorous portrayal of country law officers, bloodhounds, and rural newspapers, challenging the con men's expectations.

The narrative technique draws inspiration from the tall-tale tradition, exaggerating the reality of an average ten-year-old boy. Sam, the storyteller, engages the audience with first-person narration, employing malapropisms and literary words that highlight his overreach. The use of frontier language adds authenticity to the characters, contributing to both humor and character development.

Additionally, the story skillfully weaves scenes of comic pathos, particularly in Bill's apology for releasing Johnny and the ensuing moments of apparent madness. The blend of humor, irony, and moments of pathos creates a multifaceted narrative that transcends mere entertainment, providing insights into the human condition and societal expectations.


In conclusion, "The Ransom of Red Chief" stands as a testament to O. Henry's storytelling prowess, blending humor, irony, and an underdog theme. The narrative's exploration of Johnny's unruly nature and the clash between city sophistication and rural simplicity contributes to its enduring appeal. Through clever wordplay and unexpected twists, O. Henry crafts a tale that transcends its comedic surface, offering a reflection on societal expectations and the triumph of the seemingly underestimated. To fully appreciate the nuances of the story, readers are encouraged to delve into O. Henry's narrative world, exploring additional works that share the humor and twisted plot endings characteristic of his literary legacy.

Written by Lucas Davis
Updated: Jan 18, 2024
Keep in mind: this is only a sample!
Updated: Jan 18, 2024
Cite this page

The Ransom of Red Chief: The Humor and Underdog Theme. (2016, Apr 14). Retrieved from

The Ransom of Red Chief: The Humor and Underdog Theme essay
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