24 pages 48 minutes read

O. Henry

The Cop and the Anthem

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1904

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Cop and the Anthem”

Written in 1904 by O. Henry, “The Cop and the Anthem” introduces the reader to Soapy, a former prison inmate struggling to find his footing as a free man. The story takes place at the turn of the 20th century during what was known as the Progressive Era—a time of great business expansion and social reform. O. Henry was one of many pen names used by American writer William Sydney Porter; he adopted it while he himself was incarcerated for bank embezzlement. Like many of O. Henry’s works, “The Cop and the Anthem” contains elements of irony and humor as well as lessons about social class and the definition of freedom.

“The Cop and the Anthem” has been adapted into various skits, plays, and even movies throughout the years. In 1917, a silent, black-and-white short film based on the story debuted as the fifth release in the Broadway Star “O. Henry Stories” series. Another short film emerged in 1982, and Marc Bucci crafted a one-act play based on the story in 1972.

This guide references a version of “The Cop and the Anthem” edited by the US State Department to be accessible to ESL learners. There are differences in wording as compared to O. Henry’s original text, as well as minor differences in plot: In the story’s original version, for example, a policeman arrests Soapy after the latter claims he is doing “nothing” in the church; here, the arrest comes after Soapy argues with the cop. The original text is available through Project Gutenberg.

“The Cop and the Anthem” opens as New York City braces for winter. Unhoused inhabitants like Soapy are worried about where they will sleep on those bitterly cold nights. Soapy dreams of going back to the prison on Blackwell’s Island—his “winter home.” He would prefer prison to the nearby shelter, which would involve indignities such as forcing Soapy to wash his body and answer questions about his life: “Prison was better than that. The prison had rules that he would have to follow. But in prison a gentleman’s own life was still his own life” (36).

Soapy decides to gain the attention of a cop and hopefully be carried off to prison. His first attempt will involve eating at a fancy restaurant and skipping out on the bill. However, the restaurant employees deny him entry due to his old shoes and torn clothes. He next throws a stone through the glass window of a shop, but because he stands there smiling as opposed to running away, the police officer who arrives doesn’t believe he’s the culprit. Instead, the cop pursues a man running down the street.

Soapy next spots another restaurant—one that is less fancy than the first—and successfully gets a table, orders, and eats a full meal. Upon taking his final bite, he tells the waiter that he has no money and advises him to summon the police. Instead, the waiters merely toss Soapy out onto the street. Soapy then spots a woman standing alone on the street. He approaches her, hoping to make her feel uncomfortable enough to request a cop’s assistance. However, to Soapy’s surprise and dismay, the woman (who is, unbeknownst to him, a sex worker) responds warmly. It is only once the two have walked out of the police officer’s view that Soapy tears away from the woman and runs.

Soapy’s frustration and despair deepen. He tries to act intoxicated outside of a theater, hoping to get arrested for disorderly conduct, but the police conclude that he is “one of those college boys” they have orders to ignore (39). He then steals another man’s umbrella, baiting him to call the cops, but the fearful man admits that it’s not even his umbrella: He took it from a restaurant. He apologizes to Soapy and hurriedly runs off. Soapy throws away the umbrella in anger and resigns himself to go “home” to his seat in the park, as he feels completely defeated.

At this moment, Soapy hears a song coming from a church. This song stops Soapy and holds him in place, reminding him of when he had “such things as mothers and flowers and high hopes and friends and clean thoughts and clean clothes” (40). Inspired, Soapy resolves to turn his life around and dreams of all he’ll do. Then a policeman lays his hand on Soapy’s arm, questioning Soapy’s motives for lingering in a church. Soapy argues with the police officer and gets arrested. The story closes with a judge sentencing Soapy to three months on Blackwell’s Island.