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The Cactus by O. Henry: Summary & Theme

The Cactus by O. Henry: Summary & Theme
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  • 0:03 A Little White Lie
  • 0:22 The Marriage
  • 1:56 The Truth
  • 2:43 Themes
  • 3:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Carnevale

Jennifer has a dual master's in English literature/teaching and is currently a high school English teacher. She teaches college classes on the side.

They say a little white lie never hurt anyone, but in the short story 'The Cactus' by O. Henry, a lie causes a love connection to break. Continue this lesson to learn about the story and how the characters' actions reveal the theme.

A Little White Lie

What would you do to get the girl or guy of your dreams? Would you put on a show? Would you buy them presents? Would you go so far as to lie to make yourself look better? In this lesson we will learn about the short story ''The Cactus'' by O. Henry, and see how a little white lie did hurt someone.

The Marriage

The story begins with a man named Trysdale. He is in his apartment with a friend after a wedding and seems to be troubled by the events of the day. There is a philosophical narration about time that seems to be allusive, but soon enough, the whole picture becomes clear to the reader through Trysdale's reflection.

The serious tone continues as the narrator describes a lone cactus sitting on a table in a jar. Trysdale's friend, the brother of the bride, drinks alone, annoyed that Trysdale will not drink with him. As the friend drinks, Trysdale recalls the scent of flowers and noises from the church where a marriage had just taken place; one that seems to have affected him negatively.

The reader learns that Trysdale had ''lost'' her although we are never told who ''her'' is, and he wonders how and why. The narrator explains Trysdale is now looking at his true self, one stripped of ego, vanity, and conceit. He recalls watching her walk to the altar and look at her now husband. He lied to himself, believing she could not be happy with him. But with that look, he saw how she used to look at him, and the rest of his ego came crumbling to the ground. He recalled how she used to look up to him with rose colored glasses and always assumed the best of him. It seems she believed him to be godlike and perfect.

He thinks back to a time when she asked him about speaking Spanish because she heard it from one of his friends. Trysdale's ego accepted the skill, knowing full well it was a lie. He then thinks back to when he asked for her hand. She said she would send word the next day. The only thing he received was the aforementioned cactus with a note stating its kind.

The Truth

Days passed, and Trysdale's ego was pushing him beyond his emotional bounds. He refused to contact her, only later running into her at a dinner. They shared small talk, but when nothing of their relationship was mentioned, she became cold and distant. Trysdale's vanity did not allow him to understand what was happening between them.

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