The Meaning and Effect of Surprise Endings in O.Henry’s Short Stories
O. Henry was always well-known for his witty narration and wordplay. He was skillful enough to add some shade of light into the gloomy tragedy and some shade of sadness into the bright comedy.
To create this kind of effects in his stories O. Henry was usually using such widespread stylistic devices as humor, irony, and exaggeration. However, he was also a master in producing the other ones, and these are twist endings – a radical change in the expected direction or outcome of the plot. If it occurs at the end of a story, especially if it changes one’s view of the preceding events, or causes a reevaluation of the narrative or characters than it is called to be a surprise ending (Abrams, 1987).
They were usually used by O. Henry to praise the low-class people and encourage them in finding a better life path despite the unfavorable and adverse conditions. In The Cop and the Anthem, for example, homeless Mr. Soapy, who was trying to find a shelter from the severe winter, decides that the easiest solution, in this case, is a local jail. However, all his unsocial activities are quickly exposed as failures. As a result, after entering a church and experiencing a spiritual epiphany, he eventually resolves to cease to be homeless and regained his self-respect. And at that blessed moment, while standing on the street and visualizing his prosperous future, a policeman taps him on the shoulder: “What are you doin’ here?” – asked the officer. “Nothing,” said Soapy. “Then come along,” said the policeman (O. Henry, 1995). The surprise ending here underlines equality of all people who, under the rigid control from the local government became evil. And though they are hoping to change themselves, they are not given any opportunities to do so. Even here, a guilty person was regarded as innocent, and a person who wanted to be good was arrested in prison. This sudden twist not only dispersed the expectations of the readers but also gave them food for thought on the very essence of the capitalist society.
The other example of the typical for O. Henry twist ending may be a young girl by the name of Johnsy from The Last Leaf which should have been the last to be seen by her, but was the last for the person who literally saved her life. Being desperately ill she watches the leaves falling from a vine and decides that when the last leaf drops, she will “drop” as well. The only remedy for this disease, as the doctor said, was to give her a reason to live. And that reason was the last leaf painted by Mr. Behram during the stormy night (he was considered to be the gruffest character), what resulted in him catching pneumonia and, at last, his death: “Look out the window Sue, do you see that last ivy leaf?” – “Darling, that was Behrman’s masterpiece” (O. Henry, 1995). In this case, the twist ending makes us understand that we should not judge by the appearance as sometimes it is hard to guess what to expect from certain people. O. Henry wanted to deliver a message which is written on the last leaf which never falls: love everybody, for human’s life, that is why art survives.
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