As a short story writer, O. Henry is credited with creating new archetypical fiction characters, employing surprise endings and plot twists, and using language creatively, especially puns. Many of his short stories, including ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation,’’ also demonstrate the author’s prowess with symbolism. Though his stories are often brief, the symbolism he utilizes make them complex and rich, worth reading over and over again. By looking at the symbolism in ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation,’’ the depth of the story becomes more clear, and the author’s response to the rhetorical question ‘‘Can people really change’’ is more obvious.
O. Henry’s use of symbolism in ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation’’ helps tie the story together in a number of ways. Jimmy Valentine’s name is one key symbol to understanding the story and the character. Jimmy is a criminal, but like many of this author’s characters, one with unexpected depth and perhaps a heart of gold. As a name, Valentine underscores this heart. Valentine is associated with Valentine’s Day, St. Valentine, and love. In other words, Jimmy may be a convicted criminal but he has a heart.
Even the warden notices this aspect of Jimmy. In the first paragraphs of the story, the warden tells the newly pardoned Jimmy, ‘‘Brace up, and make a man of yourself. You’re not a bad fellow at heart.’’ At first, Jimmy dismisses this advice and returns to stealing. Jimmy tells Mike that he is a representative of the ‘‘New York Amalgamated Short Snap Biscuit Cracker and Frazzle Wheat Company.’’ (The reference to cracker can also be seen as a veiled allusion to his true occupation.) However, Jimmy lives up to his name when he arrives in Elmore, a fact that the author emphasizes by using Jimmy’s full name—Jimmy Valentine— several times. For example, when he sees Annabel Adams walking into her father’s bank, ‘‘Jimmy Valentine looked into her eyes, forgot what he was, and became another man.’’ His glance affects Annabel as well: ‘‘She lowered her eyes and coloured slightly. Young men of Jimmy’s style and looks were scarce in Elmore.’’
To fully symbolize his transformation, Jimmy changes his name to Ralph D. Spencer. Unlike Jimmy Valentine, this name is not magical and symbolic, but it shows the depth of his desire to distance himself from his past and his life as a criminal. O. Henry also symbolizes Jimmy’s change by comparing him to a phoenix, a large mythical bird. He describes Ralph Spencer as being ‘‘the phoenix that arose from Jimmy Valentine’s ashes—ashes left by the flame of a sudden and alternative attack of love—[who] remained in Elmore, and prospered.’’ According to legend, a phoenix burned itself to death every five hundred years and came out from the ashes as a new phoenix. In literature, a phoenix symbolizes renewal and the remaking of one’s self, often for the better. This is exactly what happens to Jimmy the moment he becomes Ralph Spencer—he is a remade man who devotes himself to an honest and clean life.
Over the next few pages of ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation,’’ Jimmy shows the depth of his change. His honest living becomes a lifestyle. Though he is lying about his past as a criminal just as he did when he claimed to be a representative of a cracker and wheat company, Jimmy no longer lives a life of going from job to job, town to town, crime to crime as a safecracker, nor does he desire to do so ever again. Joining the mainstream of American society, Jimmy becomes a respectable citizen of Elmore and a business owner who is about to marry into the family of the town’s banker. As Jimmy explains in the letter to Billy, ‘‘I’ve got a nice store. I’m making an honest living, and I’m going to marry the finest girl on earth two weeks from now.’’ To keep his criminal past from intruding, Jimmy plans on giving his safecracking tools to Billy and taking his bride to the West, where he can be more safe from his past intruding on his new life.
The heart and phoenix symbols reach their climax at the end of the story. When Annabel begs him to get her niece out of the locked safe, Jimmy asks for the rose she is wearing. While the color is not mentioned, a rose is often used as a symbol of love. A red rose in particular typically represents blood or the sacrifice of one’s self for profound love. In this case, the rose symbolizes the extent to which Jimmy loves Annabel and his new life. He loves Annabel so much, in fact, that he is willing to put their love on the line to save Annabel’s niece. Referring back to the phoenix symbol, O. Henry shows Jimmy transforming again into a more respected version of his safecracking self: ‘‘Jimmy stuffed it [the rose] into his vest-pocket, threw off his coat, and pulled up his shirt-sleeves. With that act, Ralph D. Spencer passed away and Jimmy Valentine took his place.’’ For love, the phoenix that was Ralph is turned to ashes and a new Jimmy emerges. This Jimmy is not interested in stealing money but in saving a little girl from a horrible death by suffocation.
In ten minutes, Jimmy has the safe open and rescues Agatha. At this point, it is unclear what Jimmy’s future will hold. Though Detective Ben Price has been trailing Jimmy for the crimes he committed before he came to Elmore, Price is impressed by Jimmy’s actions and treats him as the respectable Ralph Spencer. As a phoenix, Jimmy has already been reborn twice, but what will he tell the Adams family about his skill at opening safes? Can he explain it away or does he have to reveal who the heart-denying Jimmy Valentine really was? The author does not answer such questions with clarity.
Shoesalso play a symbolicrole in ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation.’’ In prison, Jimmy is employed in a ‘‘prison shoe-shop.’’ The story opens with him ‘‘assiduously stitching uppers.’’ Shoes come into play again when Jimmy decides to open a shoe shop as the reformed Ralph Spencer. O. Henry uses shoes as a symbol of freedom for Jimmy. He is working on shoes shortly before being freed, and the shoe business becomes his legitimate life’s work when he decides to leave crime behind. Jimmy walks away from his old life. Shoes are intrinsically linked to liberty in ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation.’’
A final symbol in ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation’’ is the concept of ‘‘safe.’’ In a classic example of O. Henry word play, Jimmy does not rob banks by holding up tellers but breaks into safes and vaults to steal money. A safe can be defined in two primary ways. For the purposes of Jimmy’s profession, a safe is a strong metal container with a complex locking system that stores and protects money and valuables. But safe also means to be protected, unharmed, and undamaged. To be safe means to be unlikely to cause or result in injury or destruction.
When Jimmy stops robbing safes and takes on a new identity, he thinks he is safe. He can give away his expensive, well-crafted safecracking tools and marry the girl of his dreams. To further ensure the safety of his new life, Jimmy plans to take his wife out West ‘‘where there won’t be so much danger of having old scores brought up against me.’’ Just as Jimmy thinks he is safe from his past, however, the accident involving the safe at the Adams Bank takes place. Jimmy risks his safe new life and his safe new love to crack open a safe which is harming a little girl.
Detective Price is awed by Jimmy’s sacrifice and thus keeps his true identity safe from the Adamses. When ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation’’ ends, Jimmy has a chance at keeping his new life. He is perhaps a phoenix again since he acts by the guidance of his new heart to save Agatha. A hopeful reader sees Jimmy jumping on the buggy to Little Rock, getting rid of his tools, marrying Annabel, and going West where they live together in safety from Jimmy’s past. This ending for ‘‘A Retrieved Reformation’’ would be the gathering of all of O. Henry’s symbolism into one satisfying package.
Petruso, A. Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, O. Henry, Published by Gale Group, 2010