For the month of September, 'The Reading Circle (TRC)", the Dhaka-based literary club, chose for its monthly discussions, short stories penned by the nineteenth century American author, O. Henry. It was a stimulating event, and once again it was a privilege for me to be able to participate from the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. As is her wont, Professor Niaz Zaman, the Chair of TR, guided the deliberations with skill and dexterity. The story that I had chosen to analyze and present was "After Twenty Years".
It contains all the three elements of wit, irony and twist that are common to O. Henry's works. As also the romanticizing of the life of the common person as he is always wont to do, of, as we say in English, the man in the Clapham omnibus. The setting is New York which provides all the diversity of life, something I personally find nostalgic empathy with, having spent well over a decade in those surroundings.
It's the story of two friends Bob and Jimmy who agree to test their friendship by meeting at a particular city spot after twenty years. But those twenty years have changed both. Jimmy has become a conscientious policeman. Bob, on the other hand, has prospered living on the wrong side of the law. Initially, Bob does not recognize Jimmy and while waiting for his friend, reveals his life story to a protagonist, taking him to be a different person. Shocked and saddened, but deeply committed to his responsibilities, Jimmy decides to have his old friend arrested. Rather than do it himself, he leaves and sends a colleague to execute the unsavoury task. Bob initially takes that colleague for Jimmy, realizes his mistake in the light after walking the dark street, as the arrest is effected.
As with most of O Henry's stories, this one is also about human behaviour and emotions. Several elements merit noting. First, change wrought by time on human character. Twenty years have turned the two friends into two very different beings. One society would accept as good, and the other as bad. Second, social responsibility. Despite their friendship, Jimmy accorded his duty priority, and decided to arrest his friend. Third, a tenderness that sometimes characterizes the hardest of hearts. It is reflected in the fact that Jimmy could not bring himself to apprehend his friend and instead chose to have another do it for him. Fourth, even in this brief tale, O Henry inserts into it all that make his works great, that is, wit, irony and the surprise at the end.
O. Henry had personal experience of the prison system, the world of legal outcastes, having spent five years in jail himself for jumping bail. One of his close friends was a felon. So, to him good and bad were but flip sides of the same coin. Let us consider, for instance, Lucifer the Fallen Angel, or the New Testament narration of Saul, the critic of Christ, who transforms into Paul the Saint after his epiphany-his sighting of the vision of Jesus- on the Road to Damascus. Or one can recall Shakespeare's Hamlet, when he says to Rosencrantz 'Why then... there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so!"
I find that American literature, including O Henry's short stories shares some commonalities with western literary genre at that time. For instance, the conflict between duty and emotion: an excellent example is Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables', who rather than imprison the ex-convict turned French hero Jean Valjean takes his own life. The interplay between darkness and light on the street is reminiscent of the art of the period, like the beautiful piece of painting by Turner of a steamboat barely discernible on the misty Thames!
There is also something about the number 20 in western numerology. In Roman or English Law 20 years were the maximum jail term for serious crimes like murder, as that was believed to be sufficient time for anyone to turn over a new leaf. Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years in the Catskill mountains and awoke to an unrecognizable post- revolutionary independent America. The three Biblical Magi from Mathews Gospel's -Casper, Melchor and Balthazar-, who influenced the title of O Henry's masterpiece were said to be aged 20 years apart.
Prison-term sharpened and honed O Henry's writing skills. I find a similarity in this regard between him and another English legendary genius of the same era Oscar Wilde, whom I hope the TRC will study sometime soon. Writings of both call into question the received wisdom in law, endorsed by society, of the infliction of pain as a cure for the correction of social misconduct. Wilde penned two of his finest works while in incarceration: De Profundis and the Ballad of the Reading Gaol. In the ballad he reflects: "Our vilest deeds like poison weeds bloom well in prison air: It is only what is good in man that wastes and withers there". Luckily neither Wilde nor O Henry intellectually wasted or withered in jail. On the contrary, and ironically, it was behind the bars of confinement that their abilities found fullest efflorescence.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, National University of Singapore. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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