O. Henry

A Retrieved Reformation

  • This summary of A Retrieved Reformation includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Retrieved Reformation Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Retrieved Reformation by O. Henry.

A Retrieved Reformation is a short story by O. Henry—a short story containing big emotions. The story begins with the protagonist Jimmy Valentine’s release from prison. Though he was initially sentenced to four years, he only served ten months thanks to his connections to other criminals in high places. Valentine was arrested and imprisoned for his involvement as a safecracker in a robbery. Upon release, he returns home to retrieve his safecracking tools and then leaves town.

Meanwhile, the detective who arrested Valentine, Ben Price, begins to suspect Valentine is back to his old ways after a string of cash robberies take place matching Valentine’s style. Valentine has traveled to Elmore, Arkansas, where he intends to rob the local bank. Instead, he falls in love with Annabel Adams, who happens to be the banker’s daughter. Valentine instantly decides that his bank-robbing days are behind him and that he will walk the straight-and-narrow from now on. He decides to become a shoemaker, taking the pseudonym Ralph D. Spencer.

After less than a year, Valentine/Spencer is doing well for himself. Business is going well and his social life is on the upswing, too. He is now engaged to marry Annabel  in two weeks He decides to write a letter to a friend, asking him to collect his old  safecracking tools. Happy with his lot, Valentine/Spencer determines he won’t need them anymore.

While Valentine/Spencer has been building his business and planning to wed Annabel, Price has followed him to the bank owned by Annabel’s family. One day, he sees Valentine/ carrying his tools. Price waits outside and watches.

Annabel’s father shows off the bank’s new safe. Annabel’s nieces play in and around the safe until one girl traps the other inside by accident. As the safe is brand new, it hasn’t yet been wound. It has no combination. Distraught over how they will rescue Annabel’s trapped niece, Annabel asks Valentine/Spencer to help.

He knows that he can help, but that in so doing, he risks losing his new life, and wrecking his upcoming marriage to Annabel. Ultimately, he decides to use his skill—and tools—to save the girl. Valentine/Spencer is successful; the girl is freed from the safe. Price saw it all. Ready to turn himself in, Valentine/Spencer approaches Price, who pretends not to know who he is. Price walks away and leaves Valentine/Spencer to marry Annabel and enjoy his new life.

With the plot explained, the title of the story begins to make sense. Valentine is reformed by his love for Annabel, and finally uses his skill to help someone instead of commit a crime. The story, as well asValentine’s interactions with Price, have often been compared to the relationship between bread thief Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. Interestingly, both stories have been adapted for the stage and film.

There is a major difference between Hugo’s treatment of reformation and O. Henry’s. In Les Miserables, the Valentine counterpart, Jean Valjean, displays his almost superhuman strength to Javert while serving years of hard labor. After being paroled, Valjean eventually sets up a new life and identity for himself as a factory owner and mayor. By coincidence, Javert is stationed in his town and, though years have passed, is reminded of the prisoner he once knew. Valjean is called to help rescue a man who is being crushed. Javert witnesses Valjean’s feat of strength to save the man, and the rest of the story revolves around their many encounters and Javert’s attempts to arrest Valjean, who is only truly free after Javert takes his own life.

In O. Henry’s story, Price witnesses Valentine’s reformation and walks away, allowing Valentine to enjoy his new life. While A Retrieved Reformation is shorter than Les Miserables and can therefore support a quicker resolution, any reader familiar with Hugo might be surprised by the ending of A Retrieved Reformation. This is fitting as O. Henry is known for his surprise endings.

Other famous O. Henry stories include The Gift of the Magi and The Ransom of Red Chief, both of which include a similar type of surprise ending to A Retrieved Reformation. Many of Henry’s surprise endings involve a note of humor, such as in Ransom when the child held for ransom is so troublesome the kidnapper ends up paying money to the father just to give back the child. His impact on the literary world is also of note. The O. Henry Award is named after him and is awarded to short story authors. The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories is an annual collection of the twenty best short stories published in American magazines.