30 pages 1 hour read

A Retrieved Reformation

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1903

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “A Retrieved Reformation”

“A Retrieved Reformation,” by prolific American short story writer O. Henry, was first published as “A Retrieved Reform” in The Cosmopolitan in 1903. The story is an example of Realism, a literary movement popular in the US and Europe in the years between the end of the American Civil War and the early 20th century. Realism explores the everyday lives of ordinary people, using detailed descriptions and colloquial dialogue.

Events in “A Retrieved Reformation” are inspired by the real-life experiences of author William Sydney Porter, who spent several years in prison for embezzlement and began writing as O. Henry while incarcerated. The story is one of more than 600 written by O. Henry, all characterized by wit, realistic detail, and ironic plot twists. Other famous O. Henry stories include “The Gift of the Magi” (1905) and “The Ransom of Red Chief” (1907), both of which include a surprise ending similar to “A Retrieved Reformation.”

“A Retrieved Reformation” has been adapted for stage and screen multiple times. In 1910, the story was produced as a Broadway play under the title Alias Jimmy Valentine. That play was later adapted several times for the screen, with different versions appearing in 1915, 1920, and 1928. A fourth version was produced in 1942 under the title The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine.

The story was also adapted into a radio series called Alias Jimmy Valentine, which ran from 1938 to 1939. In 1985, the story was produced as an hour-long drama called “Valentine’s Revenge” for the PBS American Playhouse series, which included an additional segment depicting O. Henry’s meeting with a prisoner whose exploits inspired Jimmy Valentine’s safecracking adventures.

O. Henry had a significant impact on the literary world; 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 20 best short stories published in American magazines.

This guide references the complete text of “A Retrieved Reformation” from FullReads, a free compilation of classic stories.

The narrative predominantly takes place in the little town of Elmore, Arkansas, in the early 1900s. As the story opens, Jimmy Valentine is in prison, repairing shoes in the prison shoe-shop, when a guard escorts him to the warden’s office. The warden hands Jimmy a pardon signed by the governor and advises him to “live straight.” Jimmy only served 10 months of his four-year sentence. The next morning, dressed in prison-issue clothing and with five dollars in his pocket, Jimmy walks out a free man.

After a good meal, Jimmy boards a train out of town, arriving at a café owned by his old friend Mike Dolan, who had pulled the necessary strings to secure Jimmy’s pardon. He goes upstairs to his room above Mike’s café and sees that all is just as he had left it the day he was arrested, including a button from the shirt of famed police detective Ben Price. Price lost his collar button during the arrest struggle. Jimmy recovers a suitcase full of his custom-made burglar tools, worth nearly a thousand dollars. He puts on some good clothes and heads out into the world to resume his criminal career.

A week after Jimmy’s release, a string of safe burglaries commences, all carried out with Jimmy’s signature method and style. There are enough losses to attract the attention of Price, who determines to arrest Jimmy again and make him serve his full prison sentence. Price is familiar with Jimmy’s work, and now people with “burglar proof” safes are resting more easily knowing that he’s on the case.

Jimmy travels to Elmore, a small town in Arkansas, with a plan to rob the town’s only bank. As he walks down the sidewalk toward the hotel, he sees a young woman walk past and enter the bank. As he looks into her eyes, he undergoes a deep transformation. For her part, this young lady lowers her eyes and flushes, not immune to Jimmy’s good looks and obvious interest in her.

Jimmy finds a local boy and asks him about the town—and the young woman. As she emerges from the bank and walks away, deliberately ignoring Jimmy, the boy says that she is Annabel Adams, daughter of the man who owns the Elmore bank.

When Jimmy arrives at the hotel, he registers as “Ralph D. Spencer.” He tells the clerk he has come to Elmore to start a business and wonders if there might be opportunities to open a shoe store. The clerk thinks that might be a fine idea, and Jimmy heads for his room, carrying his suitcase full of tools.

As Mr. Ralph Spencer, Jimmy stays in Elmore and operates a prosperous shoe store. He makes plenty of friends and eventually meets Annabel Adams. A year later, they become engaged, and “Ralph” is welcomed as a member of the banker’s family. Then Jimmy writes a letter to his old friend Billy, saying that he’s gone straight, getting married, and planning to move West to escape his past. He offers Billy his case of expensive burglar tools and arranges a meeting in Little Rock the next Wednesday to turn them over to him.

The night before Jimmy leaves for Little Rock, Ben Price appears in Elmore, intending to arrest him. In the morning, Jimmy has breakfast with the Adams family before setting out for the train station. In the company of Annabel’s family—her father and married sister with her two little girls—Jimmy heads to the bank, with a small detour into the hotel to pick up his suitcase of tools.

In the bank, Mr. Adams proudly shows everyone his new burglar-proof vault. As he explains its workings, Ben Price quietly enters the bank, watching the proceedings. He tells the teller that he is waiting for someone he knows. Suddenly, Annabel’s sister screams: The two little girls have been fascinated by the vault’s workings, and now the older one, May, has shut her younger sister Agatha inside, locking it as she saw her grandfather do.

Because the vault is so new, its combination has not yet been set, making it impossible to open. Agatha begins to scream, and her mother becomes frantic. Mr. Adams says there is no one closer than Little Rock who can open the vault door. In desperation, Annabel turns to Jimmy, begging him to do something to save the little girl.

With a strange smile, Jimmy asks Annabel for the rose pinned to her dress. Putting the rose in his pocket, he takes off his coat, rolls up his sleeves, and opens his suitcase of burglar tools. He becomes Jimmy Valentine, master criminal, once again. In 10 minutes of work, the vault is opened, and the girl is safe. Jimmy then puts on his coat and walks to the door. As if from a distance, he hears someone calling, “Ralph!” but he keeps going.

At the door, Price is waiting. Jimmy accepts his fate: “Well, let’s go. I don’t know that it makes much difference now” (4). Price only remarks that “Mr. Spencer” must be mistaken: “I don’t believe I recognize you” (4). With that, Price turns and walks down the street, leaving Jimmy free to pursue a new life even though he has just surrendered that life by revealing his true identity as master thief Jimmy Valentine.

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