Power of Love
One of the primary themes in ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation’’ is the power of love. Jimmy is quite content to make his living robbing banks until he sees young Annabel Adams. As O. Henry writes, ‘‘Valentine looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man.’’ Jimmy’s feelings for Annabel inspire him to change his life. He becomes an upright citizen complete with a new name, new occupation, and a new family.
Even breaking into the safe to save Agatha is a testimony of Jimmy’s love for Annabel. When May accidentally locks Agatha inside their grandfather’s new vault and safe at his bank, their mother becomes distraught and their grandfather cannot get them out. The nearest expert is hours away in Little Rock. Annabel loves Jimmy as much as he loves her and does not panic. Before she asks for his help and Jimmy uses his safecracking skills to save the day, ‘‘Annabel turned to Jimmy, her large eyes full of anguish, but not yet despairing. To a woman nothing seems quite impossible to the powers of the man she worships.’’ Their love saved the day for Agatha and proved how much Jimmy has changed.
Right versus Wrong
Another theme explored in the short story is right versus wrong. When the warden tells Jimmy that he has been pardoned by the governor, he tries to impress on Jimmy that he must stop committing crimes and doing wrong. The warden says to Jimmy, ‘‘Now, Valentine, you’ll go out in the morning. Brace up, and make a man of yourself. You’re not a bad fellow at heart. Stop cracking safes, and live straight.’’ The warden is trying to advise Jimmy that his lifestyle, which takes him on the wrong side of the law, will inevitably result in the loss of his freedom again.
The wrong-living Jimmy only decides to live in the right after seeing Annabel Adams. Taking on a new identity to solidify his life changes, he does not leave Elmore for the next year as he establishes himself as an upright citizen. Jimmy is a business owner and travels in the best social circles. He even wins Annabel as his future wife and becomes an accepted member of her family. Determined to leave his old life of crime behind, Jimmy plans to move West with her, away from his old life, ‘‘where there won’t be so much danger of having old scores brought up against me.’’
Though the narrator says that the old Jimmy emerges when he uses the tools of his safecracking trade to rescue the little girl, Jimmy does live up to the credo he stated in his letter to Billy. Jimmy writes, ‘‘I wouldn’t do another crooked thing for the whole world.’’ Jimmy has lived in the right for a year, and even Ben Price does not want to spoil it for him. His wrong life has turned right and apparently stayed that way.
Appearances and Reality
Another concept explored in ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation’’ is appearances versus reality. Except for Jimmy, every character in the short story is straightforward; they are what they seem on the surface. Jimmy, however, lives a life of duplicity. He denies being a criminal. But even to his friend Mike Dolan, Jimmy keeps up the pretense of a cover story. Jimmy says to Mike when asked about his next job, ‘‘I don’t understand. I’m representing the New York Amalgamated Short Snap Biscuit Cracker and Frazzled Wheat Company.’’
Although Jimmy changes his identity to win Annabel, he keeps from her the truth about his past. The only way Jimmy thinks he can keep up appearances at the expense of the reality of his life is by moving West with Annabel. Yet the reality of who he is intrudes when Agatha is accidentally locked inside the vault of her grandfather’s bank by her sister May. Jimmy saves the girl, at Annabel’s request, thus revealing at least part of the reality of who Jimmy is. When he begins this process by taking off his coat and rolling up his shirtsleeves, ‘‘Ralph D. Spencer passed away and Jimmy Valentine took his place.’’ Though Ben Price does not reveal who Jimmy really is and walks away, the reality of Jimmy’s life in Elmore has probably changed. It is unclear if Annabel will still marry him or even if he will stay in the community.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, O. Henry, Published by Gale Group, 2010