By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘After Twenty Years’ is a short story by the American writer O. Henry, whose real name was William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). A trademark of the O. Henry story is the surprise twist ending, and ‘After Twenty Years’ is a classic example of this. The story is about two friends who agree to meet up after twenty years to compare each other’s lives.
You can read ‘After Twenty Years’ here. Below, we offer a summary and analysis of the story.
‘After Twenty Years’: summary
One night in New York, a policeman sees a man striking a match to light his cigar. This man stands in the doorway of the building that had once been a restaurant named Big Joe Brady’s. The man explains to the policeman why he is loitering here, in case the policeman thinks there is something suspicious about him hanging around here after dark.
He tells the policeman that twenty years ago to the day – indeed, to the very hour – he parted company with an old friend of his, Jimmy. Both he and Jimmy were young New Yorkers who decided to make their fortunes, but while the man in the doorway decided to head out West, Jimmy vowed to remain in New York. They pledged to come back to this very spot, exactly twenty years later, to meet up for a reunion and compare how each other had fared in their attempts.
The policeman tells him he hopes Jimmy shows up, and then continues on his beat. After twenty minutes of waiting, the man is approached by someone in a long overcoat with the collar turned up. This man recognises the man in the doorway as Bob, his old friend from twenty years back. Bob, in turn, thinks he has recognised his friend of old, Jimmy Wells.
As the two men walk off arm-in-arm to find somewhere to sit and catch up properly, they turn a corner and Bob finds his companion’s face illuminated by the electric lights of a drugstore. He realises this man is not Jimmy Wells, his old friend. Instead, the man reveals himself to be a plain-clothes policeman who is arresting Bob, who is now a notorious Chicago gangster and wanted man.
The story ends with this policeman handing Bob a note from his old friend, Jimmy, who is now a policeman who patrols the streets of New York. In his note, Jimmy tells Bob that he was the policeman who spoke to him earlier in the evening. Realising that his old associate was now a wanted criminal, Jimmy found he didn’t have the heart to arrest his old friend, so he went and found a plain-clothes policeman to arrest him instead.
‘After Twenty Years’: analysis
Like most of O. Henry’s short tales, ‘After Twenty Years’ is a story with a twist. Here, the twist is actually several twists (or, at the very least, surprise developments) packed into one. First, there is the obvious narrative twist, that the much-anticipated and long-awaited reunion between the two old friends has, in fact, already happened at the very start of the story.
But of course, there is also the added twist, that Bob has made his fortune by illicit means, and is now a wanted criminal. Chicago in the early twentieth century has strong associations with gangsters, with Al Capone being perhaps the most famous, or notorious, of them all. The fact that Bob has been given a nickname, ‘Silky’ Bob, only strengthens the suggestion that he is involved in some sort of illegal gang activity.
So, the two friends who do indeed meet up ‘After Twenty Years’ have taken divergent paths: one has gone West and the other has remained in New York; one has remained on the straight and narrow (and even become part of the law enforcement establishment) while the other has become a criminal; one has become a success and the other is about to become a failure as he is finally seized and arrested for his crimes.
The clever thing about O. Henry’s stories is his use of a third-person narrator, who is thus impersonal and omniscient. Whether third-person narrators always are omniscient – that is, all-knowing – is something that critics have often debated. The critic and theorist Nicholas Royle, for instance, has argued that the term ‘telepathic’ is more accurate than ‘omniscient’, since third-person narrators have the ability to go into characters’ minds but they don’t necessarily know everything.
However, the point with ‘After Twenty Years’ is that O. Henry keeps the focus of the story on the action (and dialogue) of the characters rather than what’s going on inside their heads. Thus the neat twist unfolds naturally and without our feeling that anything has been unfairly withheld from us.
It is also a narrative masterstroke to give Jimmy the last word, or words, of the story. His note thus reveals the delicious twist in a way that explains it without actually spelling out that he was the policeman who accosted Bob at the start of the story. The reader is thus gently encouraged to piece the final parts of the narrative jigsaw together themselves, making that final revelation a little more satisfying.
And of course, seeing criminals hauled to justice is a classic plot denouement: the manner in which the long arm of the law outstretches itself in this case only makes the poetic justice that much more poetic.