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After Twenty Years: Themes & Analysis

After Twenty Years: Themes & Analysis
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  • 0:00 'After Twenty Years':…
  • 1:35 Themes In 'After Twenty Years'
  • 2:50 Analyzing 'After Twenty Years'
  • 5:00 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.

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.

Friendship

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.

Loyalty

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.

Trust

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.

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