O. Henry’s short stories are famous for their plot twists. In this lesson you will learn some of his techniques through a few of his well-known stories.
A Stranger in a Strange Land
O. Henry was a southern man, born William Sydney Porter in North Carolina. In the 1880’s, he moved to the strange land of Texas, and later was convicted of embezzlement from the bank where he worked in Austin. Before his trial, Porter fled to the strange land of Honduras and began writing stories. The strange land after that was prison, where he he wrote stories during his three years there.
In 1902, he moved to New York City, the setting for many of his stories.
In each place, he gathered information on situations, people, and vernacular, and brought this all to his readers.
Like many writers, the strange lands he experienced colored his writer’s voice and imagination.
O. Henry chose to write as people spoke, with colloquialisms woven into the characters’ voices. Gangsters, waitresses, cops, inmates, all of them are channeled through O. Henry’s imagination. In The Poet and the Peasant, he brings the south to New York City with the very distinct diction of a southerner meeting street smart New Yorkers.
Part of this, along with normal life situations, make the reading feel legitimate and informed.
A Believable Plot
O. Henry uses normal, real life situations and the key to their impact.
In his Christmas story The Gift of the Magi, a penniless, young couple in love want to surprise each other with a gift not only beautiful but practical. The wife Della with her luxuriant hair will buy husband Jim a platinum chain for his gold watch. Jim is out shopping, and just as broke as Della.
Jim plans to buy her something special as well. Oh, what could that be?In The Poet and the Peasant, the story begins with a poet writing something beautiful that the editor thinks is phony. And suddenly the story cuts away. The reader finds himself in a story where a country bumpkin can’t get people to help him in New York City. They all think he’s a con-man pretending to be a dumb hick. And when the peasant story comes to an end, the reader is suddenly back in the story of the poet.
It’s an unusual technique, but part of O. Henry skillfully hooking the reader’s curiosity. The moment the author abandons the first plot and starts the second, the reader is asking: how are these two stories related? Will we find out what happens to the poet in the first story? The trick of O. Henry is to raise questions in the reader’s mind forcing the reader on to find out the answers.
If Ever There Was a Literary Con-man
When you sit down to an O. Henry short story, you know that all the while the exposition is happening, you are being set up. The evidence will be placed in the story, but will you be able to figure it out before the surprise comes at the end? So you sit down in front of his text, which you know is a trap, and you read for twenty minutes to find out what it is. Along the way, you keep a mental log of plot details, character description, implied ideas, and words that are doorways to these characters’ thoughts and tendencies. Along the way you try to assemble clues into a realization like a detective solving a crime. But O.
Henry is a trickster and deceiver, one who is not to be trusted.
Unexpected twists are a trademark of O. Henry. In The Gift of the Magi, the author says that ”life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
” Indeed, the sniffle is the reaction the writer goes for in the end of the story when the final twist is revealed. Jim has found the gift for Della, the perfect gift of a comb set for her beautiful hair. He finds that she has cut and sold her voluminous mane to a wig maker to buy him a chain for the gold watch that he loves. And he has raised the money for the comb set by selling the one thing he had of value: his gold watch.
In this bittersweet irony, the two then realize the depth of their love and willingness to sacrifice for the other.The Poet and the Peasant ends with the bumpkin buying a suit so people take him seriously. When he is believed to be a sophisticated man, he is robbed of everything. And then the reader is dropped again into the story of the poet, where a sappy, tasteless poem written as a joke is being praised by the all-knowing editor for its depth of sincerity and insight.
In both stories, the protagonists are misread and misjudged by others who think they know. It is only when they present something fictitious that it is taken to be true.
Mixed Feelings in the Literary Community
Some writers and critics feel O.
Henry’s work is little more than extravagant riddles masquerading as literature. In fact, many literary reviews seeking stories specifically state in their guidelines: ”No O. Henry type endings.”
O. Henry’s writing style was fueled by his own experiences, such as his run to Central America to avoid the inevitable prison time for embezzlement. His work focuses on real life situations to be believable and hints to gain the reader’s curiosity.
He frequently offers the reader a surprise ending or a clever twist of irony.