Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen: Summary & Theme

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

The author O. Henry is known for his surprise endings. One example is his short story ''Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen.'' In this lesson you'll read a summary, and look at the theme of the story.

A Day of Giving

How many stories can you think of that center around holiday traditions? Probably quite a few. Holidays are a popular focus for short stories. One story that takes the holiday setting and puts a twist on it is ''Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen'' by William Sydney Porter, known as O. Henry. This story looks at the traditionally generous nature of people on Thanksgiving, and how a certain type of generosity is almost as traditional as the holiday itself. However, O. Henry is known for plot twists, or surprises, at the ends of his stories, and this one is no exception.

William Sydney Porter is known for his surprise endings

Holiday Traditions

The story begins with a short, broad discussion of Thanksgiving and its traditions. O. Henry comments that ''Thanksgiving is the one day of the year that is purely American.'' He also notes that the history of the holiday is not so much the focus anymore, but that traditions are a big part of Thanksgiving. One ongoing tradition is that rich people are generous and give meals to the poor. The story also comments that, ''It is a strange thing. There are rich people who wish to help the poor. But many of them seem to think that the poor are hungry only on Thanksgiving Day.''

From there the tale focuses on Stuffy Pete, a poor man in New York City. (O. Henry often sets his stories in New York City.) Pete's Thanksgiving tradition is to wait on a park bench in Union Square. Every year the same old gentleman comes along and buys him a large Thanksgiving dinner, and has been doing so for the last nine years. The old man is very proud of this tradition.

Stuffy Pete waits in Union Square
Union Square

Give 'Til It Hurts

This year, Pete has already had dinner. On a nearby street live two old ladies. Every year on Thanksgiving they have a servant wait by the door and take in the first poor person to walk by, and give him dinner. This year Pete is that person. So when he arrives at his usual bench, he is already painfully full from a huge dinner. He is full to the point of sweating and being uncomfortable.

After a few minutes the old man arrives as usual, and greets Pete the way he always does. Pete doesn't want to eat again, but he sees how happy the old man is that he can buy Pete dinner. So Pete tells the old man he is hungry, and the two go to their usual restaurant. Pete eats another huge meal.

However, he has eaten far too much. On the way home, Pete collapses from all the food he ate and is taken to the hospital. At the same hospital we see the old man. One doctor tells another that the old man is there because he has had nothing to eat for three days. Here, O. Henry has created a highly ironic ending because what happens is the opposite from what you might expect. The old man has starved himself to buy Pete dinner as usual, and because Pete didn't want to turn the old man down and hurt his feelings, both of them ended up in the hospital.

Traditional Generosity

The overarching theme, or topic, of ''Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen'' is generosity, especially generosity that has become a tradition. We see this first with the old women. They are traditionally generous on Thanksgiving, giving a huge meal to the first poor person who walks by.

Then we see it in Stuffy Pete. Pete is generous by not refusing the second meal, even though it puts him in the hospital. He doesn't want to hurt the feelings of the old man who has been kind to him every Thanksgiving for nine years.

We also see it in the old man. The old man loves his traditional dinner with Pete and the generosity it represents. He even starves himself for three days in order to be able to afford his traditional generous gesture. Both Stuffy Pete and the old man are generous in completely different ways, but both displays of generosity require personal sacrifice.

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

Register for a free trial

Are you a student or a teacher?
I am a teacher

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 95 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 2,000 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

Create an account to start this course today
Try it free for 5 days!
Create An Account