When ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation’’ opens, Jimmy Valentine is working in a shoe shop in prison. He is called into the warden’s office, where he learns that the governor has pardoned him. Jimmy expected the pardon much sooner because of his numerous friends on the outside. Because he is pardoned, he only had to serve ten months of a four-year sentence.
The warden tells Jimmy to ‘‘live straight’’ and cease his safe-cracking, but Jimmy denies ever doing this illegal activity. The warden reminds him that he was convicted of committing a crime in Springfield by a jury and had no alibi that he wanted to share. Jimmy denies ever being in Springfield.
The warden tells Cronin, an officer, to give Jimmy the appropriate clothes to leave the prison and to ready him for release the next morning. At that time, the civilian-dressed Jimmy is also given five dollars and a railroad ticket out of town. Before Jimmy leaves, the warden also presents him with a cigar.
As soon as he leaves prison, the pardoned Jimmy goes straight to a restaurant and eats a solid meal. He then smokes a cigar—not the one the warden gave him but one of better quality. Jimmy then makes his way to the railway depot and boards a train.
He gets off the train three hours later in a small town that is something of a home to him, and he goes to Mike Dolan’s cafe´ . Mike apologizes for not being able to get Jimmy out of prison sooner, but explains there were protests and a governor who was somewhat unwilling to issue a pardon. Jimmy gets a key from Mike and goes to a room where his belongings are stored.
Inside the room, Jimmy finds everything untouched since he last left it. Even the shirt collar button that Jimmy pulled off Detective Ben Price, who arrested him, is still on the floor. Jimmy pulls out a dusty suitcase hidden in the wall which contains the carefully manufactured tools of his trade as a safecracker. Among the tools are several items invented by Jimmy.
When Jimmy returns downstairs to the cafe´ , he has changed into his own clothes and is carrying his now clean suitcase. When Mike asks him, ‘‘Got anything on?’’ Jimmy tells him that he is simply a representative from a food company. Mike is amused by Jimmy’s response and makes him a non-alcoholic drink, as Jimmy does not drink alcohol.
Within the next week, several bank safes are robbed. The crimes take place in Richmond, Indiana; Logansport, Indiana; and Jefferson City, Missouri. Detective Price begins to investigate the robberies and finds that the methods used to commit the robberies are similar. As Price visits each of the scenes, he believes that Jimmy is the perpetrator. Someone overhears him say, ‘‘That’s Dandy Jim Valentine’s autograph.. .. Yes, I guess I want Mr. Valentine. He’ll do this bit next time without any short-time or clemency foolishness.’’
Because of Price’s past experiences investigating Jimmy, he believes he can track him. The safecracker favors traveling distances between jobs, leaving town quickly, and doing the work alone. Jimmy also enjoys ‘‘a taste for good society.’’ Price’s investigation is reassuring to other safe owners.
A short time later, Jimmy enters the small town of Elmore, Arkansas. The community is not on a railway line so he has to ride a mail-hack (horse-drawn vehicle) into town. As Jimmy gets off, his appearance is compared to an athletic student home from college.
Jimmy walks to the hotel where he intends to check in and passes by the Elmore Bank. There, he sees a young woman, Annabel Adams, who captures his attention. As O. Henry writes, ‘‘Jimmy Valentine looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man.’’
Jimmy begins asking questions and giving dimes to a young boy sitting on the bank’s steps in exhange for information. Jimmy learns about the town, and when Annabel leaves, he finds out her identity. Annabel’s father owns the bank that he planned on robbing.
Going to the Planters’ Hotel, Jimmy registers as Ralph D. Spencer. He tells the clerk that he has come to town to open a business. The clerk says that a shoe business would fit in nicely, as there is no store that focused exclusively on that product. The clerk also lavishes praise on his town. Jimmy tells him that he will spend a few days checking Elmore out for himself.
Jimmy takes the name Ralph as his permanent identity. He stays in town and becomes a prosperous shoe store owner. Jimmy also finds success socially and becomes acquainted with Annabel. By the end of the year, Jimmy is socially prominent, highly respected, and engaged to Annabel. His wedding to Annabel is coming in two weeks. Even her father, Mr. Adams, likes Jimmy (now Ralph) and considers him part of the family.
Determined to turn his back on his old life, Jimmy writes a letter to a friend named Billy. Jimmy wants to meet Billy in Little Rock so that Billy can tie up some loose ends for him and so that Jimmy can give Billy his safecracking tools. He also writes to Billy that he has gone straight and plans to move out West with his bride to get a fresh start away from any old business interfering with his new life. Jimmy states, ‘‘I wouldn’t touch a dollar of another man’s money now for a million.’’
Shortly after Jimmy writes this letter, Detective Price comes to town. He checks up on Jimmy. Price notes that Jimmy’s future wife is the bank owner’s daughter and wonders what Jimmy is planning.
The next morning, Jimmy has breakfast with his future in-laws. He has plans to leave Elmore for the first time since he moved to town. Not only will Jimmy meet his friend in Little Rock, he also has plans to order a suit for his wedding and purchase a gift for his bride-to-be.
After breakfast, Jimmy, Mr. Adams, Annabel, Annabel’s sister, and her two young daughters venture out together. They stop so Jimmy can get his suitcase from his hotel room, then go on to the bank. The group goes inside the bank, and Jimmy brings along his suitcase.
When Jimmy sets the suitcase down, Annabel picks it up. She notes its heavy weight, which Jimmy explains away as a bunch of ‘‘nickel-plated shoe-horns’’ that he is returning. Jimmy tells her he is trying to save some money by returning them himself.
Inside the bank, Mr. Adams shows off his new safe and vault. The small vault features the latest technology including a time lock. As Mr. Adams flaunts these items to Jimmy, his future son-in-law ‘‘showed a courteous but not too intelligent interest.’’ The two girls start to play with the vault and safe. As they play, Price enters the bank, waits, and tells the clerk that he is waiting for a man.
The situation grows tense when the elder girl, May, shuts the younger, Agatha, in the vault while they are playing. Imitating her grandfather, May also locks and turns the combination knob. Mr. Adams becomes distraught when he cannot open the door—it turns out the combination has not been set up and the vault clock is unwound.
Mr. Adams tries to calm down the girls’ hysterical mother, but also admits that there is no one in the area who can open the door of the safe. He expresses concern for Agatha’s safety, as there is little air in the vault. Annabel asks Jimmy to do something.
Jimmy tells all present to get away from the door as he opens his suitcase of safecracking tools. Drawing on all his skills, he gets the safe open in ten minutes. Agatha comes out alive.
Jimmy walks toward the bank’s exit, but Price is standing in the doorway. Jimmy greets him and is ready to give himself up. But Price surprises Jimmy by saying ‘‘Guess you’re mistaken, Mr. Spencer. Don’t believe I recognize you. Your buggy’s waiting for you, ain’t it?’’ With that, Price walks out of the bank and leaves Jimmy to his new life.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, O. Henry, Published by Gale Group, 2010