After Twenty Years: Themes & Analysis

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Ivan Turgenev: Biography & Books

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 'After Twenty Years':…
  • 1:35 Themes In 'After Twenty Years'
  • 2:50 Analyzing 'After Twenty Years'
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed Audio mode

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

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

Would you recognize your best childhood friend after 20 years of being apart? Come explore the complicated and surprising feelings and situations that such a reunion can bring in this lesson analyzing themes in O. Henry's 'After Twenty Years.'

'After Twenty Years': A Summary

Sometimes, one of the most difficult lessons for us to learn as we get older is that people, including ourselves, change. Although we might be able to recognize the physical features of people we once knew, some of their other qualities could very well be altered beyond recognition - especially after 20 years.

In this short story by O. Henry, the two main characters - policeman Jimmy Wells and outlaw 'Silky' Bob - learn this lesson all too well. At one time, the two had been as close as brothers. However, once Bob left to pursue his fortunes in the West, the two eventually lost touch. Nevertheless, they had promised to meet each other in 20 years, to the hour, after their last dinner together at the same spot in New York City.

Twenty years later, Bob's waiting outside where the restaurant once stood when he and Jimmy parted ways; the latter, who's now a policeman, comes upon him while he's walking his beat. After hearing Bob's story about the friends' pledge to meet up again and watching him light up a cigar, Jimmy recognizes it's Bob. He also realizes his old friend is a fugitive from Chicago, whom he'd seen earlier on a police bulletin. At that point, Bob isn't aware that the policeman is Jimmy, who goes about on about his patrol, leaving the outlaw to wait for his friend.

After a few moments, another man appears. At first, Bob thinks he is Jimmy. Although Bob can't see the man too well in the dark, he begins to notice that some things are off about him. Eventually, the man reveals that he's a plainclothes officer taking Bob under arrest. Before he does so, he hands Bob a note from the patrolman, who turns out to be his former best friend and betrayer, Jimmy.

Themes in 'After Twenty Years'

Despite its surprisingly short length, O. Henry's 'After Twenty Years' has three different thematic elements woven into the plot. Let's take a look at them.


Many of us probably know what it's like to feel compelled to do something out of friendship. Maybe it's working for no money, listening to long stories, or traveling hundreds of miles after 20 years. Bob clearly values the bonds of friendship that were forged between him and Jimmy all those years ago. However, it seems some of the knots may have come loose over the years that tied Jimmy to Bob.


Loyalties to people and ideas can sometimes be difficult to maintain, especially when they're split between a person and an idea that might be close to our hearts. Keeping their 20-year appointment to the minute, Bob's loyalty to Jimmy is obviously unwavering. However, now that's he's a policeman, Jimmy's loyalties to Bob and to the law are put to the test when he discovers his old friend is a wanted fugitive.


Whom would you trust more: a police officer who arrested his best friend, or a 'dirty cop' who allowed his once closest companion to escape? Despite what we might think, it's clear that Bob isn't able to trust Jimmy when it comes to keeping him out of jail. Actually, by the end of the story, it doesn't seem that Bob's able to trust Jimmy about very much at all.

Analyzing 'After Twenty Years'

Although attitudes in America toward the police have changed drastically since O. Henry's lifetime in the late 19th century, many of us might admit to at least some reliance on the services of the men and women in blue. Being able to rely on our police forces means we trust them to uphold their duties to the law and to the citizens it protects. In 'After Twenty Years,' though, this is meant that any trust Bob had in Jimmy was displaced as soon as 'Silky' Bob became a criminal.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account