"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Short Story Analysis: The Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry

I want to preface the analysis of this wonderful little story by a short meditation on what makes a story.  One can write a narrative about Joe next door going to the grocery store and picking up tomatoes, a rib eye steak, and a can of beans, returning, cooking up dinner, and watching television for the evening, but it wouldn’t be a story.  The touchstone that I use when thinking what makes a story is Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis.”  Here a timid young man works himself to the bone at a job he doesn’t like to support his lazy parents, is suddenly transformed into an insect, and through the course of trying to hide his new insect body his family accidently kills him.  Now that’s a story. 

So what makes Kafka’s story a story while the events of Joe’s evening not a story?  There is that proverbial journalist’s euphemism that dog bites man is not a story, but man bites dog is.  I think there are three elements that constitute a story.  (1) an interesting character or set of characters, who are (2) in an interesting situation with (3) interesting set of events that reaches some sort of a conclusion.  The incisive word in all three elements is “interesting,” which is vague, I agree.  What constitutes interesting requires a lot more space than this post, and probably more thought on my part.  One common method of “interesting,” at least as it relates to situation and set of events is the use of irony, and more specifically, “situational irony.”  You can read about the different types of irony here 

Now let’s get to O. Henry’s “The Ransom of RedChief.”  What really makes this story work is that the situation and conclusion are incongruous with what is expected.  Two second rate crooks decide to kidnap a child for ransom to make a quick buck but find the urchin they snatch to be an imp of a child, and instead of getting money for him wind up paying the parents to take him back. 

The story is told in the first person of Sam, one of the kidnappers, a southerner, and the brains of the operation. 

IT LOOKED like a good thing: but wait till I tell you. We were down South, in Alabama -- Bill Driscoll and myself -- when this kidnapping idea struck us. It was, as Bill afterward expressed it, "during a moment of temporary mental apparition"; but we didn't find that out till later. 

Excerpts taken from Literature Network.   The story is quite readable off a computer and could be read in less than an hour. 

When you hear, “but we didn’t find that out until later” your antenna should perk up and recognize that irony will be an important part of the story.  And it is, in many facets. 

There was a town down there, as flat as a flannel-cake, and called Summit, of course. It contained inhabitants of as undeleterious and self-satisfied a class of peasantry as ever clustered around a Maypole. 

Bill and me had a joint capital of about six hundred dollars, and we needed just two thousand dollars more to pull off a fraudulent town-lot scheme in Western Illinois with. We talked it over on the front steps of the hotel. Philoprogenitiveness, says we, is strong in semi-rural communities; therefore and for other reasons, a kidnapping project ought to do better there than in the radius of newspapers that send reporters out in plain clothes to stir up talk about such things. We knew that Summit couldn't get after us with anything stronger than constables and maybe some lackadaisical bloodhounds and a diatribe or two in the Weekly Farmers' Budget. So, it looked good.

Notice the verbal irony throughout: a flat town whose name is Summit, a town of “undeleterious” folk, which is to say mild, and having “philoprogenitiveness.” which is to say love of their children.  Sam tends to use pretentious words.  Just as the town is incongruously named after a mountain height, there turns out to be nothing mild about the little boy they kidnap and his family doesn’t exactly love him either.  The rogue’s logic is undermined by reality. 

The two find a cave two miles from the town to hide out with the victim.  Finally they make their move.  

One evening after sundown, we drove in a buggy past old Dorset's house. The kid was in the street, throwing rocks at a kitten on the opposite fence. 

"Hey, little boy!" says Bill, "would you like to have a bag of candy and a nice ride?" 

The boy catches Bill neatly in the eye with a piece of brick. 

"That will cost the old man an extra five hundred dollars," says Bill, climbing over the wheel. 

That boy put up a fight like a welter-weight cinnamon bear; but, at last, we got him down in the bottom of the buggy and drove away. We took him up to the cave and I hitched the horse in the cedar brake. After dark I drove the buggy to the little village, three miles away, where we had hired it, and walked back to the mountain. 

Bill was pasting court-plaster over the scratches and bruises on his features. There was a burning behind the big rock at the entrance of the cave, and the boy was watching a pot of boiling coffee, with two buzzard tailfeathers stuck in his red hair. He points a stick at me when I come up, and says: 

"Ha! cursed paleface, do you dare to enter the camp of Red Chief, the terror of the plains? 

"He's all right now," says Bill, rolling up his trousers and examining some bruises on his shins. "We're playing Indian. We're making Buffalo Bill's show look like magic-lantern views of Palestine in the town hall. I'm Old Hank, the Trapper, Red Chief's captive, and I'm to be scalped at daybreak. By Geronimo! that kid can kick hard." 

Yes, sir, that boy seemed to be having the time of his life. The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive, himself. He immediately christened me Snake-eye, the Spy, and announced that, when his braves returned from the warpath, I was to be broiled at the stake at the rising of the sun.

It’s really a funny story.  Poor Bill is the real victim of the encounter.  The boy is way more than they bargained for.  The boy actually enjoys himself, and takes possession of the situation.  He’s the Red Chief, red for his hair color, and in command.  What was supposed to be a kidnapper’s hideout is the boy’s Indian camp, and instead of the boy being the hostage the kidnappers are going to be scalped and burnt at the stake.  Of course Bill and Sam take that as play talk, but it turns out to be more verbal irony when Sam is startled out of sleep that first night.

Just at daybreak, I was awakened by a series of awful screams from Bill. They weren't yells, or howls, or shouts, or whoops, or yalps, such as you'd expect from a manly set of vocal organs -- they were simply indecent, terrifying, humiliating screams, such as women emit when they see ghosts or caterpillars. It's an awful thing to hear a strong, desperate, fat man scream incontinently in a cave at daybreak. 

I jumped up to see what the matter was. Red Chief was sitting on Bill's chest, with one hand twined in Bill's hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing, bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill's scalp, according to the sentence that had been pronounced upon him the evening before. 

I got the knife away from the kid and made him lie down again. But, from that moment, Bill's spirit was broken. He laid down on his side of the bed, but he never closed an eye again in sleep as long as that boy was with us. I dozed off for a while, but along toward sun-up I remembered that Red Chief had said I was to be burned at the stake at the rising of the sun. I wasn't nervous or afraid; but I sat up and lit my pipe and leaned against a rock. 

"What you getting up so soon for, Sam?" asked Bill. 

"Me?" says I. "Oh, I got a kind of a pain in my shoulder. I thought sitting up would rest it." 

"You're a liar!" says Bill. "You're afraid. You was to be burned at sunrise, and you was afraid he'd do it. And he would, too, if he could find a match. Ain't it awful, Sam? Do you think anybody will pay out money to get a little imp like that back home?"

And so the events go on in this manner.  The irony continues when Sam finds that no one in town is in the least upset the boy is missing.  The boy doesn’t want to go back and his parents aren’t in any hurry to get him back.  Finally the kidnappers send the boy’s father a ransom note and threaten that he will never his boy again, and they ironically sign the note “Two Desperate Men.”  The implication may be that they will harm the boy in desperation but the reality is they are now desperate to get rid of the boy. 

You can read the rest of the story and how irony is used to end the story.  I just wanted to highlight some of O. Henry’s prose.  William Sidney Porter, his real name, actually did go to jail for embezzlement and he was partnered with another crook for a while.  He spent time in jail, where he started writing of short stories, and after release earned a living from it.  His stories are so likable, and while they do skirt a seedy side of life, they tend to gloss over real evil.  After all, the two kidnappers could have just killed the boy and be done with it, but that drop to heinous behavior is never contemplated.  I love his prose style.  At his best, he writes clean, crisp sentences which have a rhythmic pacing.  He has enough “Americanisms” and local dialect splattered about that make him clearly American.  He has an ear for American locution.  Here are a couple of examples.  Sam here goes up to the cave overlook to see what’s happening in town.

I went up on the peak of the little mountain and ran my eye over the contiguous vicinity. Over toward Summit I expected to see the sturdy yeomanry of the village armed with scythes and pitchforks beating the countryside for the dastardly kidnappers. But what I saw was a peaceful landscape dotted with one man ploughing with a dun mule. Nobody was dragging the creek; no couriers dashed hither and yon, bringing tidings of no news to the distracted parents. There was a sylvan attitude of somnolent sleepiness pervading that section of the external outward surface of Alabama that lay exposed to my view. "Perhaps," says I to myself, "it has not yet been discovered that the wolves have home away the tender lambkin from the fold. Heaven help the wolves!" says I, and I went down the mountain to breakfast.

The diction is of the American south of a particularly educated man who mixes bookish words with down-to-earth phrases.  Notice the southerner’s use of redundant adjective qualifiers: “contiguous vicinity,” “sturdy yeomanry,” “dastardly kidnappers,” and “somnolent sleepiness.”  You might argue that the redundancy is poor writing, but this is evocative writing of a time and place.  Here is Sam at the town mailing the ransom note.

I walked over to Poplar Cove and sat around the post-office and store, talking with the chaw-bacons that came in to trade. One whiskerando says that he hears Summit is all upset on account of Elder Ebenezer Dorset's boy having been lost or stolen. That was all I wanted to know. I bought some smoking tobacco, referred casually to the price of black-eyed peas, posted my letter surreptitiously and came away. The postmaster said the mail-carrier would come by in an hour to take the mail on to Summit.

“Chaw-bacons” and “whiskerando” are probably slang that has not lived on, but it just rings with Americanism.  And finally I love the way O. Henry makes characters come to life with just a snippet or passage of speech.  Here he lets the boy ramble on at dinner.

Then we had supper; and he [the boy] filled his mouth full of bacon and bread and gravy, and began to talk. He made a during-dinner speech something like this: 

"I like this fine. I never camped out before; but I had a pet 'possum once, and I was nine last birthday. I hate to go to school. Rats ate up sixteen of Jimmy Talbot's aunt's speckled hen's eggs. Are there any real Indians in these woods? I want some more gravy. Does the trees moving make the wind blow? We had five puppies. What makes your nose so red, Hank? My father has lots of money. Are the stars hot? I whipped Ed Walker twice, Saturday. I don't like girls. You dassent catch toads unless with a string. Do oxen make any noise? Why are oranges round? Have you got beds to sleep on in this cave? Amos Murray has got Six toes. A parrot can talk, but a monkey or a fish can't. How many does it take to make twelve?"

The discontinuity between the boy’s sentences, his regional slang, his likes and dislikes, his interests and musings define the boy in such a small space.  I just love that passage, and this story.  

Thanks to Jan, one of this blog’s regular readers, for suggesting this story.


  1. Jan, yes that Jan :)April 1, 2014 at 4:25 PM

    'Bout time you did some serious reading! Well, seriously fun, anyway....hist! Pard!

  2. I think I also have a book by O Henry on my shelves somewhere...again, one I haven't read. Seems I need to go through my own books!
    That rambling passage reminds me of my own son Ben, now 18, and is much more sparing with his speech. He had a very chatty phase, from about 3-10. Sometimes, I thought my ears might bleed. And this from a woman with five daughters!

    1. My son is a complete chatter box. He talks a mile a minute. You just gave me a thought. I'm going to try to replicate that speech using Matthew and his rambling. Should be cool.