Stories by O. Henry

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After reading, in the past months, the short stories of Turgenev, Chekhov, Maupassant, James Joyce, and Hemingway, I found O. Henry‘s stories to be remarkably different. They were refreshingly delightful, poignant, and easy to read, and yet, I was struck by the inferiority of O. Henry’s actual writing in comparison to the others. In the end, though, I think everyone should read some of O. Henry’s stories: they are enjoyable.

O.  Henry’s stories are full of irony. Like Maupassant‘s stories, his stories focus on the base aspects of human nature: poverty, crime, and dying. However, while Maupassant’s stories focus on self-interest, O. Henry’s stories focus on self-improvement and the “love your neighbor” aspects of human nature. The characters in O. Henry’s stories were loving, and the endings were poignant and “tender.” On the other hand, as I mentioned when I read Maupassant’s stories, some of those characters were cruel and uncompassionate. Both writers seemed to accurately portray human nature, but I must say that Maupassant’s take was more amusing!

O. Henry was born William Sidney Porter and became O. Henry after a few years in prison, during which time he turned to his writing. I’m glad he did write because I really enjoyed his stories! My favorites were these (links to public domain etexts):

  • The Gift of the Magi. $1.87 is all she had on Christmas Eve, and yet she wanted to buy her husband a Christmas gift.
  • The Cop and the Anthem. A homeless man wants to be arrested so he can be in jail all winter.
  • The Last Leaf. She knows she will die when the last leaf falls from the vine.
  • The Ransom of Red Chief. Two criminals need $2,000, so they decide to kidnap the son of the richest man in town and hold him for ransom.

The Writing

Reading James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway before reading O. Henry may have been a mistake, simply because I was distracted by O. Henry’s writing. His writing is perfectly acceptable: it’s probably a style issue for me. O. Henry is a down-to-earth writer, and his writing seemed to have a more conversational aspect. For example, in “The Gift of the Magi,” the woman begins to cry in the first paragraphs. Then,

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage [sobs] to the second [sniffles], take a look at the home.

Now, there is technically nothing wrong with addressing the reader. But James Joyce was careful to develop a scene and Ernest Hemingway never would use so many words to describe something, so for me, it was just a surprising, jarring sentence to read.

Also, along the same line, O. Henry told his stories, but none of the characters seemed developed. Even after finishing “The Ransom of Red Chief,” for example, I barely know about the two kidnappers and the young boy; they remained stereotypes in a clever story. On the other hand, while Joyce seemed long-winded in some respects and his stories were somewhat depressing, the characters and settings were so beautifully created that I didn’t mind reading it.

Has reading Joyce and Hemingway and the other authors recommended in HTR&W made me a “snob” for concise yet beautiful descriptions and carefully developed characters? I don’t know. Maybe if I’d waited a few days after Hemingway, O. Henry’s writing style wouldn’t have seemed inferior.

I suppose noticing writing, instead of just stories, is progress. After all, one of my goals in attacking a reading list like HTR&W is to learn to read well, instead of just turning pages. The other night, I picked up a less-than-100-page collection of O. Henry to read and I read it one setting: wouldn’t that be reading to “just turn pages”?

But, as I said, I really enjoyed O. Henry’s stories, and after my disappointment in Hemingway, I really needed to “just turn pages.”

Have you read O. Henry? What was your favorite story? What have you read lately when you just wanted to “turn pages”?

If you want to read some “tender” (and, yes, I admit, somewhat cheesy) “love your neighbor” stories, you should really give O. Henry a try. Read his stories online in the public domain at Project Gutenberg; most are fairly short.

Reviewed on September 17, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Your criticisms are keen, but I agree that his stories would be worth reading. I read The Gift of the Maji in high school, but it’s time to try it again. And I have never read any others.

    Please include me in your give away!

    I have been on a short story tear myself lately. I’ve been going through John Cheever, Roald Dahl, Sommerset Maugham, and Eveyln Waugh. Hemmingway’s complete set is on my iPod now, but I have to get through Moby Dick first.

  • Rose City Reader, I hesitated to write criticisms of O. Henry, simply because I do think he must be read! But I thought it was interesting to notice his writing style after reading the others.

    I am also in the midst of a short story spree. However, I’m finding that I struggle through a “collected works” of each author. At least with Hemingway, I couldn’t stand it and gave up. (While each story is good, adding up so many depressing stories was too much!) I think I prefer reading a short story author in small selections of stories.

    I’ll have to give those authors you mention a try.

    I’ve entered you all in the drawing!

  • hello Rebecca!
    ive 2 give a presentation on OHenry…4 ds i wnt 2 know about his writing style,n ur feedback help me a lot.ur language is quite easy n flowin.
    thank u.

  • Hello, since you seem to know a lot about O. Henry, could you help me? I am doing a school project. I must design a book cover that tells the theme of 4 of his stories combined: After 20 Years, Gift of the Magi, Ransom of the Red Cheif, and A Retreived Reformation. Could you also tells the writers style in these four books combined? Thank you.

  • Cam, You know, I always hated the “design a ___fill-in-the-blank__” assignments when I was in school. Yours sounds like a particularly hard one, because it’s four stories! I hope that as you reread the stories a few times, you’ll be able to find the connections between them and enjoy the writer’s style.

    All the best!

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