The Furnished Room
is a short story by American author William Sydney Porter, better known by his pseudonym, O. Henry. First published in the New York World
in 1904, it was later reprinted in Henry’s short story anthology, The Four Million.
Taking place in the lower west side of New York City, it focuses on an unnamed young man searching for his lover, who came to New York to try to make it in show business. He rents a furnished room near the theaters where his lover, an aspiring singer who had been auditioning for shows, might be working. He smells the fragrance that she often wears, and becomes convinced that she must have been there. He starts obsessively searching the room for any trace of her, and winds up encountering a mysterious spirit that eventually drives him to despair. Like most O. Henry stories, it ends with a twist. Focusing on themes of obsession and coincidence, as well as the dangerous and overwhelming nature of show business, The Furnished Room
is considered one of O. Henry’s best works and remains widely read today. It is often included in collections of his works, as well as in collections of classic American ghost stories. It is frequently taught in literature classes as an example of how to build suspense in a brief short story.The Furnished Room
begins with a young man walking from building to building in the lower west side of Manhattan, looking for a room. At the twelfth house he visits, the shady-looking housekeeper tells him that the back room on the third floor is available. She leads him through the dank hallway, claiming it’s a very convenient and popular room. She gets many lodgers connected with the stage, who tend to come and go. He pays for the room, and asks her if she remembers a girl named Eloise Vashner, an aspiring singer. He describes her as fair, of medium height, with reddish gold hair and a mole near her left eyebrow. The housekeeper doesn’t remember her and says stage people often change their names. The young man is frustrated, having spent five months trying to find Eloise. As he sits down after another fruitless day, he observes the room, seeing traces of its former tenants - a work rug, stains on the wall, a woman’s name carved into the mirror. The room has been abused by its frustrated former dwellers. As he sits down and tries to relax, he suddenly smells the strong, sweet scent of mignonette. A smell he recognizes as a scent Eloise used to wear. He talks to the scent, as if he’s being called by it. He suddenly knows, with complete conviction, that Eloise has been in this room.
He begins to search the room for Eloise’s belongings, for any proof that she’s been there. He’s so consumed by the search that he doesn’t notice that her spirit is in the room, all around him, calling to him. He smells the scent again, and calls out “Yes, dear!” as he continues to search. He gropes around the room in confusion, trying to figure out what’s happening to him. He finds minor traces of many people, but nothing that belongs to Eloise. He runs downstairs and asks the housekeeper for records of the room’s previous inhabitants. She gives him a year’s worth of documents, but nothing that points to Eloise. Defeated, he returns to his room and finds it quiet. The perfume and the spirit are gone, leaving only a musty odor. Drained and broken, he tears his bedsheet into strips and uses it to block the door and window. Turning the gas on at full blast, he goes to sleep and awaits death. Downstairs, the housekeeper tells the friend about the new tenant, and the friend asks if he knows what happened in that room last week. The housekeeper says she hasn’t told him, because she didn’t want to lose his business. It seems that the week before a tenant killed herself in that room - a young woman who had a mole by her left eyebrow.
O. Henry was an American writer best known for his short stories, most of which had a surprise ending or ironic
twist. In addition to The Furnished Room
, he is well-known for the romantic fable The Gift of the Magi
, about a couple whose attempts to buy the perfect gift for each other lead them to make great personal sacrifices, and the comic tale The Ransom of Red Chief
, about two hapless criminals who are overwhelmed by a child hostage. Born William Sydney Porter, he did time in prison for embezzlement and actually begun writing there, having his work published under various pseudonyms. Today, the O. Henry prize is a prestigious annual award given to short story writers. He is widely honored around the country, with his hometown of Austin, Texas having several museums and monuments to his life.