Short stories

The Themes of Friendship and Loyalty in O’Henry’s “After Twenty Years”

O’Henry is arguably the master of twist endings. Each of his plot twist catches the reader more off guard than the previous. Whether it is Della and Jim finding out they have sold their most prized possessions to buy each other nearly useless gifts in “The Gift of Magi or the drawing of a leaf we all assumed to be real in “The Last Leaf. More typical of his narrations is a plot comprising two people, whose relationship is stressed by different circumstances. And in between, readers learn about the plot twist. These trademarks are also evident in the short story “After Twenty Years“, along with the author’s satirical humor and witty narration.

Another common aspect of O’Henry’s storytelling is the inclusion of an aspect of humanity. Despite the characters’ traits, occupation, authority, or position in society, there is always some form of human affection that scream from their actions. In After Twenty Years, he advances this aspect of humanity through the theme of friendship and loyalty. Even with such few characters, O’Henry manages to show the power of human connection; one that creates a friendship so strong to withstand twenty years in all ways possible

Summary: After Twenty Years by O’Henry

On a chilly and windy evening, a policeman walks along the streets trying doors, looking here and there, making certain that everything is as it should be. He stops halfway along a block and a man standing in a dark spot begins to explain his presence at that time of the night. The man, Bob, says he is waiting for his long-time friend, Jimmy Wells, with whom he made a promise twenty years ago to meet at this exact spot. After a short inquisitive conversation and a lit cigarette, the policeman walks away, but not before inquiring for how long the man would wait for his friend. A moment later, a tall man walks towards Bob. Convinced that it is Jimmy, the two walk down the street, coming around a corner below a drug store lights. Suddenly, Bob realizes that his companion is not the friend from his youth. Quickly, the reader learns that Jimmy is the first policeman and Bob is a wanted criminal. Overcame by their friendship and loyalty likewise, Jimmy sends a plainclothes policeman to arrest his friend instead.

Even with such few characters, O’Henry shows the power of friendship on a man so hardened by crime, like Bob.

Literary Analysis on the Themes of Friendship and Loyalty in After Twenty Years by O’Henry

The story first introduces the friendship theme when Bob attempts to justify his presence to the policeman. Bob talks about his friend with praises that affirm a deeply-rooted friendship. He explains, ” Jimmy Wells, my best chum, and the finest chap in the world.” The compassion and affection that is evident in Bob’s tone as he talks about Jimmy show the magnitude of their friendship. He even likens their relationship to that between two brothers who have grown up together.

This friendship has brought Bob a thousand miles from the West to see Jimmy, to keep a long-standing promise. It is the loyalty to this promise and on a larger scale, their friendship, that he says ” I came a thousand miles to stand in this door to-night, and it’s worth it if my old partner turns up.” Bob is also certain that his friend will keep the promise and show up. The conviction in his voice that Jimmy will keep the promise as well speaks volumes about their friendship.

True to Bob’s words, Jimmy shows up a few minutes to the agreed time, only not in the way the man from the West expected. Jimmy is as enthusiastic and committed to this meeting as Bob, which furthers this theme of friendship.

Just like in most of his plot twists, O’Henry advances the aspect of humanity in the story by revealing previously unknown truths of either the characters or a situation. First, it is revealed that Jimmy arrived at the chosen place and on time. Second, ‘Silky’ Bob is a hardened criminal from Chicago and has been on the watch by the police for a while now. The conflict created by this information and actions taken by both parties suggest a close friendship. Further, it shows the theme of loyalty and how this integrates with friendship.

From the beginning, it is obvious that Jimmy takes pride in his work. The story starts ” The policeman on the beat moved up the avenue impressively. The impressiveness was habitual and not for show…” Thus, it is no surprise that he chooses loyalty to his work and authority over his friendship with Bob. However, as the human he is and considering their friendship, he sends someone else to arrest his friend.

Through the twist ending, O’Henry affirms the power of human connection through a man so hardened by crime like Bob, and Jimmy who has grown to be everything that’s opposite of his friend.

Do you have any literary analysis questions for your essay writing or just loved reading ‘After Twenty Years’ by O’Henry and wanna start a conversation? Let me know in the comment section below!

6 thoughts on “The Themes of Friendship and Loyalty in O’Henry’s “After Twenty Years””

  1. Have you ever read other stories written by O.Henry?Such as The last leaf or The Gift of the Magi.They are brilliant as well and I’m looking forward to knowing your opinion of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I have read both stories. I actually mentioned both of them in the post as well.
    I think O’Henry does a great work of building up the readers’ emotions by starting with the bonds between the characters, and later revealing his trademark plot twists.
    This is also present in the short story ‘After Twenty Years’.

    What is your opinion of the three stories by O’Henry?


  3. Well,I love his stories indeed.I am interested in his similar characters and their different endings.In the story ‘After Twenty Years’,the police chooses to arrest his friend while in the ‘A Retrieved Reformation’ the police choose to let him go.
    Even though two stories has different endings ,I believe both of them are emotional and warm.
    The small figures also have big love,I think it’s really attractive.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think the characters in the two stories you mentioned are similar but up to a certain point.
    In “After Twenty Years”, Bob is a hardened and wanted criminal at the moment while Jimmy Valentines from “A Retrieved Information” reforms after some time, starts a legitimate business, is about to start a family, and even saves a child :).
    I agree; both stories are still emotional and warm despite their different endings.


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