Themes, Styles and Techniques of O.Henry
William Sidney Porter was born Thursday evening at Nine o’clock, September 11, 1862. He was born a few miles south of Greensboro, North Carolina, in Centre Community on Polecat Creek. (Arnett 1) His father, Algernon Sidney Porter, was a physician. When William was three, his mother died, and he was raised by his grandmother. William was a good reader, but at fifteen he left school, and worked in a drug store and on a Texas ranch. He moved to Houston, where he had many jobs, including that of bank clerk.
He joined the Houston Post as a columnist. He was convicted of embezzling money, but there has been much debate over whether he was guilt or not. In 1898 he entered a penitentiary at Columbus, Ohio. During his time in prison O. Henry started to write short stories to earn money to support his daughter Margaret. In prison his first work, “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking”, appeared in McClure’s Magazine. After doing three years of the five years sentence being released on good behavior, Porter emerged from the prison in 1901 and changed his name to O. Henry.
Throughout this paper I will be discussing the different elements of O.Henry’s writings, whether it’s his different types of Theme, style, or technique. I am going to first begin with theme which is a central idea or generalization that has to do with life. After theme I am going to speak about technique which is the way an artist uses a material to achieve a desired effect. Lastly I am going to use style which is the way a particular writer, produced by word choice, grammatical structures, use of literary devices, and all the possible parts of language use.
Some common themes of O.Henry are deception, mistaken identity, the effects of coincidence, the unchangeable nature of the fate and the resolution of seemingly unsolvable difficulties separating two lovers.(Twentieth –Century Literary Criticism Vol. 19 167) O.Henry used deception with a plot that he called “turning the tables on Haroun Al-Raschid,” the caliph from mingle with the common people.
In O.Henry’s works it’s the common people who save for the nights they can dress to impress and mix with the wealthy people.(167) Some more themes are the pretense and reversal of fate, discovery and initiation through adventure, the city as a playground for imagination, and the basic yearning of all humanity. O.Henry’s main theme is pretense the desire to pose as what one is not is the most persistent theme. The Duel relates to the theme of the city as an imagination.
The Duel has the city glowing with lights seen at midnight from a hotel window: “there arose the breath of gaiety unrestrained, of love, of hate, of all the passions that man can know. There below him lay all things good or bad, that can be brought from the four corners of the earth to instruct please, thrill, enrich, despoil, elevate, cast down, nurture or kill…”(Pizer & Harbert 415)
The first theme is surprise endings of O.Henry. He uses this in a large amount of his stories. Many adults who read O.Henry’s works are eagerly waiting for a surprise ending. (Current Garcia, A Study of the Short Fiction 155) O.Henry’s works basically all contain a surprise ending. They lead you on it the beginning with a thought that everything is going according to plan.
He lets the reader, us, think that we have it figured out by we don’t. He has something waiting for us at the end of the book. Something that would seem like it came out of no where. Hyder E. Rollins said “The conclusion is an enigma.” He has the reader under suspense until the last sentence. (155) this is shown in O.Henry’s story The Gift of the Magi. Where a husband sells his watch to buy his wife some combs she worshiped, and the wife cut and sold her hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch.
This was such a surprise because you never expected this in the beginning. The reader never expected the wife to cut her hair when her husband was buying her combs, and the husband to sell his watch when the wife bought him a chain for it.
Also O.Henry had an idea that life is a surprise that the unexpected continually happens. (157) Rollins commented on O.Henry’s idea saying that “He is then, a pure romanticist who strives earnestly for realistic effects.” (157) A romanticist is a person who acts on impulse. They hate conformity they loathe following the rules. They prefer to make there own rules, and they are also in touch with nature. They love the outdoors. Rollins is saying that O.Henry is a romanticist because of his idea that life is a surprise. His idea about how life happens unexpectedly. It’s spontaneous so therefore you never know what kind of turn your life will take for the better or worse.
Eugene Current-Garcia said that “the most obvious technical manifestation of O.Henry’s delight in the unexpected is in his famous surprise endings.”(Current-Garcia, O.Henry, 137) O.Henry’s way of using these surprise ending really played a big part in most of his stories. O. Henry’s stories are perhaps best known for their surprise endings. A surprise at the end of the story can bring joy to readers. The key to a surprise is that it has to be believable.
Consider the surprise endings in “The Last Leaf” and “The Third Ingredient.” These endings are most likely not what you predicted, but what happens in these stories is exciting, and it is practical in view of who the characters are. In other words, you can accept the endings of the stories as the mark of a good writer and know that O. Henry tricked you once again. (http://www.nextext.com/index.cfm?fuseaction) O.Henry’s stories are split into five groups based on there setting: the south, the west, Central America, Prison, and New York. The one with the most stories is New York with 140 stories based in New York. (Twentieth –Century Literary Criticism Vol. 19 167) O.Henry moved to New York City in 1902 after he was released from prison.
He lived there for the rest of his life, setting many of his stories there. He used the city as the foundation for a group of Arabian Nights stories and, calls New York “Baghdad-on-the-Subway.” He used this term to connect modern New York with the exotic settings of The Arabian Nights, a collection of romantic and magical stories set in Baghdad. William loved New York City.
He was fascinated by the shops, and the nightlife. He also loved the glamour. At the height of his popularity, Porter could eat in the nicest restaurants and buy tickets for the most popular shows. Yet he never forgot about the thousands of working-class New Yorkers who lived very differently. Even when his life was very successful, he kept an eye on the “common folk” and wrote about the “four million” New Yorkers that other writers tended to ignore. (http://www.nextext.com/index.cfm?fuseaction)
Technique was something that O.Henry was good at using. He used many different techniques and different styles in his writing one of the techniques his like using was local color. O.Henry’s writings take the speech patterns and rhythms of the common folk and adds “vivacity, variety, and interest of his stories” said Eugene Current-Garcia. (Current-Garcia, O.Henry, 142) He came directly from a southern background being born in North Carolina. The cultural tradition he inherited brought out a deep influence on his literary career.
About thirty of his stories were placed in the old south setting or had to do with activities and attitudes of southern characters. When he writes he puts out a realistic dialogue from his childhood, his own history, and first hand observations of the various classes of people he knew and lived with.(Current-Garcia, A Study of the Short Fiction, 12) O.Henry was born in the south so most of his stories talk about the lifestyles of the people in the south. His characters models are people who were around O.Henry.
His narrative methods came from him dealing with Texas outlaws also from his childhood in the south. (Current-Garcia, A Study of the Short Fiction, 4) There is a story where he talks about life with the outlaws in Texas. That is because he was there and witnessed it first hand. So he takes them and puts them into his story so that they can become major characters based on the way they were around him.
O.Henry moved from the south to Texas and was later in jail all of these things had an impact on the way his stories were written. “An Odd Character” a story that brought O.Henry back to the spring of 1896 while waiting to be on trial for embezzlement “…Nearly all of us have, at some point in our lives- either to excuse our own stupidity or placate our consciences promulgated, some theory of fatalism…” (Langford 93) While in prison O.Henry published fourteen of his best stories.
Three of those fourteen that were published are first “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” a sentimental story dealing with a hobo who has not lost his capacity for loyalty and honor.(137) The second story is “Georgia’s Ruling” an even more sentimental story about the ennobling influence of a dead child.(137) The third is “Money Maze.”(137)
All of these things play a role with the local color he used in his writings. They each played a significant part in his life and in his stories. O.Henry either wrote like a humorist like A.B. Longstreet and J.J. Hooper or he wrote with local color. Both ways you can tell that the characters had southern attitudes, manners, and speech. (Current-Garcia, A Study of the Short Fiction, 4)
Another technique would be O.Henry’s ability to use allusions. An example of O.Henry’s artistry with words can be seen in his many literary allusions, especially toward Shakespearean plays and the ancient classics. (Current-Garcia, O.Henry, 146) O.Henry’s “The Poet and the Peasant,” puts together a lot of literary devices. The story starts off first person narrative and follows a detailed description.
At each turn of the story the irony gets further complicating. (Current-Garcia, O.Henry, 152-153) This is just one example of how O.Henry uses many different literary devices. A writer said that in the many allusions to Shakespeare found in O.Henry’s stories “how shows a tendency to word-play or to an unexpected turn similar to that manifest of the plots of his stories.”(Current-Garcia, O.Henry, 146)
A different Technique is the way he can put together his words so that the common people were able to understand him. Rollins said Porter had a “maltreatment of words,” his vocabulary was contained a lot of slang words and phrases. There is no doubt that the presence of slang makes O.Henry more favorable to the general public, because the public is drawn to a writer who turns down academic facts of speech. (Current-Garcia, O.Henry, 159).
O.Henry’s writings, his facility in taking the speech patterns and rhythms of the common folk adds “vivacity, variety, and interest of his stories” said Eugene Current Garcia. Even though he had an outrageous use of modern slang, “O.Henry is a master of felicitous expressions and strange verbal flavors.” (Current-Garcia, O.Henry, 136) The light touch of O.Henry “his mastery of the vernacular, his insight into the life of the disinherited, makes it needless for him to resort to such inventions.” (Current-Garcia, A Study of the Short Fiction, 152) Yevgeny Zamyatin said “A pungent language, glittering with an eccentric and unexpected symbolism, is the first thing that captures the attention of O.Henry’s readers” (Twentieth –Century Literary Criticism Vol. 19 181)
When O.Henry writes, he has a touch that is unbelievable, the way he makes everything fall together. Each line is unique in a way because he writes like he talks, but in some cases he is able to use academic terms in his writings. He just builds up a picture for us. Forman said “The piquant and picturesque phrasing, the dash of the slang. The genial and winning fancy seems to carry the most fantastic situations.”(152) This quote describes exactly what he does when he writes he is able to paint a picture for us.
O.Henry used to sketch so his words are based on some pictures. In two sketches he did for the post they are first an imposter or a person who wears a mask, and second the idea of fate as the one thing in life that can’t be avoided. These two ideas are reoccurring themes in techniques in O.Henry’s works. (Langford 94) His stories have the “harmony of tone so essential to the short story writer,” said Rollins. (Current-Garcia, A Study of the Short Fiction, 158)
Style one of the many elements that O.Henry’s stories contain. O.Henry had a very humorous style. Rollins said that “Just as his plots and his characters are humorous in conception and in treatment, so the most striking trait of O.Henry as a stylist is humor.” (Current-Garcia, A Study of the Short Fiction, 158)
Rollins also said “O.Henry’s piquant audacities of style” are likeable, but they are sure to lose “their piquancy and lower his rank in literature.”(158) O. Henry had a good sense of humor and liked to show ironic situations. Some of his stories, such as “The Ransom of Red Chief,” are very funny throughout. Others deal with serious subjects and only have a little bit of humor. A Majority of the humor that O. Henry writes takes the form of irony. When an author uses a word to mean the exact opposite of its real meaning that is “irony.” Sometimes, a whole story is ironic.
The author sets up a scene one way, and then the opposite of what you expect actually happens. An example is when Plumer, the homeless man in “A Madison Square Arabian Night,” realizes that he must teach some manners to a wealthy and well-respected man. “The Gift of the Magi” contains a plot twist that is a classic example of irony. (http://www.nextext.com/index.cfm?fuseaction)
O. Henry’s plots most of the time deal with coincidence. Coincidence also plays a key role in most of O. Henry’s stories. The odd coincidences that the characters experience add another element of humor to the story. For example, in “After Twenty Years,” two old friends have plans to meet. But one has just learned something different about the other, and this leads to an unexpected event. In “A Retrieved Reformation,” it is a coincidence that Ben Price happens to be watching Jimmy save a little girl.
In these stories and others, the coincidence acts as a kind of warm-up to the story’s surprise ending. (http://www.nextext.com/index.cfm?fuseaction) Coincidence is something that O.Henry enjoyed using in his work along with the surprise endings. He loved it because both of these tools together kept the readers attention and kept the suspense up for the entire story.
O.Henry’s stories had a time when they were getting attacked as mechanically artificial, obviously superficial, and overly sentimental because of the new style of short stories that were coming about in the 1920(Harris viii) Harris said that Fred Lewis Patee one of O.Henry’s most out spoken critics repeatedly attacked him for being an immoral writer in the treatment of his characters, and as a mere “comic journalist whose stories we trivially humorous journalistic anecdotes.”(ix) Critics consider all of O.Henry works jokes because he was humorous and he used slang he didn’t take it seriously.
While other said it is fair to compare him woth anybody. He was just amazing like Henry James Forman said “No talent could be more original or more delightful. The combination of technical excellence with whimsical,sparkling wit, abundant humor and fertile invention is so rae that the reader is content without comparisons.” (Current-Garcia, A Study of the Short Fiction, 154)
This is true on many levels about O.Henry the way in which he wrote so many stories was amazing. Towards the end of his life things started to fall out. O. Henry’s last years were shadowed by alcoholism, ill health, and financial problems. He married Sara Lindsay Coleman in 1907, but the marriage was not happy, and they separated a year later. O. Henry died of cirrhosis of the liver on June 5, 1910, in New York.
After O.Henry’s death many young scholars began reading and understand his books. They started to appreciate the kind of write he was, but they still said if he had cared a little more he could have been one of the best. O.Henry works in total can be put together into these five elements. First a quick opening that pulls the reader into the action with surefire ‘hook’; Second a confiding narrator who holds back important information until the last moment; Third a pleasant and worldly wise tone including chitchat, wit, satire, philosophy, and swank; Fourth open-minded use of a ‘humane renegade’; Fifth a healthy does of coincidence usually with a reversal in which everything is saved and set right; finally Sixth, ‘surprise endings’. These six elements represent O.Henry’s works to the fullest. (Luedtke & Lawrence 304)
Current-Garcia, Eugene. O.Henry. Auburn: Twayne, 1965
Arnett, Ethel S. O.Henry From Polecat Creek. Greensboro, North Carolina: Piedmont Press, 1963
Current-Garica, Eugene. O.Henry A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Harris, Richard C. “William Sydney Porter(O.Henry) A Reference Guide.” Boston: G.K. Hall and Company, 1980. vii-ix.
Littell, McDougal. Nextext. n.d. Houghton Mifflin Company. 4 Nov. 2007
Luedtke, Luther S and Keith Lawerence. “William Sidney Porter.” American Short-Story Writer. n.d.
Pizer, Donald and Earl N. Harbert. “William Sidney Porter.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 12: American Realists and Naturalists. 1982.
“William Sidney Porter.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Volume 19 ed. n.d.
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