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After Twenty Years: Summary & Characters

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  • 0:02 'After Twenty Years'
  • 2:07 Characters
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

When reading a story by O. Henry, you're almost always in for a surprise. But that doesn't mean you can't come prepared for the twists of 'After Twenty Years.' This lesson features a synopsis of the story and an introduction to its characters.

A Brief Synopsis of 'After Twenty Years'

A twist ending is a sudden and unexpected turn of events in a story's conclusion. Before M. Night Shyamalan, there was William Sydney Porter - better known as O. Henry - whose legendary mastery of the twist ending in short stories is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in his 'After Twenty Years.'

'After Twenty Years' is a story of fewer than 1,300 words that opens with a policeman on night patrol. It's nearly 10:00, and all's quiet as he walks his beat, checking locks for safety. Suddenly, though, a figure standing in a doorway catches his attention, and he approaches. The person speaks up and reassures the officer that he's not looking to cause any trouble - just waiting on a friend with whom he'd made an appointment 20 years ago to meet at that spot.

The man lights a cigar and tells the lawman about his friend, Jimmy Wells, who'd been more like a brother to him when they were younger. He praises Jimmy's character and assures the policeman that he'll keep their appointment for 10:00. As it's already quite nearly ten, the officer asks if the man will wait any longer for Jimmy, and the patient friend says he'll give him half an hour as the lawman continues his patrol.

About 20 minutes later, another man approaches and calls to the waiting friend by name - Bob. As the two men greet each other heartily, Bob begins to recognize some unfamiliar characteristics in his friend; namely, he seems taller than he remembered. He accepts his friend's reply that he'd grown some in 20 years, until they come across the bright lights of a drug store.

Here, Bob realizes that the man in front of him doesn't have the same nose as Jimmy, but it's far too late for him to escape arrest from the plainclothesman posing as Jimmy. Before taking him into custody, however, the officer hands Bob a note from Patrolman Wells whom he'd unwittingly met earlier. In it, Jimmy admits he recognized Bob's face from a Chicago police bulletin but didn't have the heart to bring him in himself when he had indeed made it to their appointment on time without Bob's ever knowing.

Characters in 'After Twenty Years'

Aside from the plainclothes officer who's seen just long enough to arrest Bob, the fugitive and the patrolman are the only people encountered in O. Henry's short story.

Silky Bob, as he's known to authorities, is a fugitive from Chicago coming back to New York City to meet an old friend. When he lights his cigar on the dark city street, the patrolman instantly recognizes him from a police bulletin, but readers might also quickly recognize him as an outlaw from this same brief glimpse. Bob's noted as 'pale' and 'square-jawed' with a 'scar near his right eyebrow.' These facial features combined with his diamond-encrusted scarfpin and watch begin to paint a picture of someone who's been up to no good.

Bob had left 20 years ago to seek his fortune in the West, and it seems he's done so, only very illegally. Despite these flaws, though, there are still redeemable qualities in his character. For one, Bob can't seem to speak highly enough of his good friend, Jimmy Wells, to whom he kept his promise of meeting even after 20 years. This kind of loyalty appears to also make him a rather trusting person, which, however, turns out not to work so well for him in the end.

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