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23 pages 46 minutes read

O. Henry

After Twenty Years

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1906

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “After Twenty Years”

Note: Readers can access the source on Project Gutenberg here.

With a complex relationship between two characters and an unexpected yet inevitable twist at the climax, “After Twenty Years,” published in the collection The Four Million (1906), is a typical example of O. Henry’s storytelling style. The story explores the themes of identity and change, perception and reality, and loyalty, and the twist ending means that each reading of the story is a new experience.

The story opens with an unnamed policeman confidently walking around the deserted nighttime streets of New York City in cold, windy, wet weather. Even though he looks “impressive” as he completes his rounds and confidently checks the locks of every door to be sure they are secured, it is “not for show” (Paragraph 1). This part of the city does not have an active nightlife: very few people are around and most of the businesses have already been closed for a few hours.

The police officer notices a man standing in a darkened doorway. The man has “a little white scar near his right eyebrow” and wears a scarfpin of a “large diamond” paired with a bejeweled “handsome watch” (Paragraph 6). Seeing the police officer walking toward him, the man explains that he is waiting for a friend. 20 years ago, they both agreed that they would meet at Big Joe Brady’s restaurant at 10pm on this date. The police officer states that the restaurant closed five years ago, and the man offers to explain the story to the police officer.

The man relays a brief tale of a brotherly, significant friendship with Jimmy Wells, a man he grew up with in New York. Jimmy had been his “best chum, and the finest chap in the world” (Paragraph 7). They had their last dinner together exactly 20 years ago as the man was setting out to find his fortune out West. Jimmy remained in New York City, as if, in the estimation of the man, it was “the only place on earth” (Paragraph 7). They resolved to meet again in exactly 20 years to see what they had made of themselves.

The police officer comments that 20 years is a long meeting time and asks if the friends had kept in touch over the years, to which the man replies that they wrote to each other for only the first year or so before they lost touch due to moving constantly out West. Even though the friends haven’t communicated in many years, the man is confident that Jimmy will show up tonight, being “as true as any man in the world,” that he has traveled “a thousand miles” to be there (Paragraph 9).

Noting the man’s bejeweled attire, the police officer comments that the man must have been successful with his endeavors, which the man confirms, explaining that while traveling he had to fight “some of the sharpest wits” for his fortune. He states that people in New York City get “in a groove” and don’t excel in life, leading him to conclude that Jimmy must be the same way now (Paragraph 13).

At this point, the police officer wishes the man a good night and a successful reunion and moves on to continue his patrol, while the man waits, even as the weather becomes increasingly cold and rainy.

A tall man with a long coat approaches the man with purpose, asking if he is Bob. The man answers in the affirmative and asks excitedly if the tall man is the friend he’s been waiting for, Jimmy Wells. The tall man explains that he was confident Bob would show up but wishes that the restaurant was still there so that they could have dinner there again. They exchange their updates: Bob explaining that the West “has given me everything I asked it for,” while the tall man states that he works for the city and has grown a few inches since he last saw Bob (Paragraph 23). The men then walk together to “have a good long talk” at a place chosen by the tall man (Paragraph 26). However, once they reach a more well-lit area, Bob finally gets a good look at the tall man’s face, instantly noticing that he is not Jimmy Wells, as 20 years wouldn’t change the size and shape of man’s nose. The tall man comments that 20 years is enough time to change “a good man into a bad one,” and informs Bob that he is under arrest as Chicago police officers had informed the New York police that Bob, a wanted criminal known as “Silky Bob,” was in New York (Paragraph 31).

Before the tall man leads Bob away, he says he was instructed to give him a note written by a police officer named Wells. The story closes as the man reads the note: “Bob: I was at the place on time. I saw the face of the man wanted by Chicago police officers. I didn’t want to arrest you myself. So I went and got another police officer and sent him to do the job. JIMMY” (Paragraph 33).

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