At the turn of the century the name O. Henry was synonymous with the short story as a form. And for many readers still, the notion of what a short story is derives from the kind of trick or twist ending associated with such O. Henry stories as "The Gift of the Magi," that sentimental story about the poor young couple--he who sold his watch to buy combs for her long hair and she who sold her hair to a wig-maker to buy a chain for his gold watch. Not many O. Henry stories deal with serious issues in a serious way; they are either sentimental or else they are comically ironic. "The Cop and the Anthem" is of the latter kind, but just because it does not carry a heavy theme or a serious idea does not mean that it will not repay a close study.
"The Cop and the Anthem" illustrates the importance of point of view and ironic structure. The first thing a reader might notice about this story is the language, riddled as it is with high-sounding esoteric words. What kind of person says "cognizant of the fact that" rather than "knew," or "eleemosynary" rather than "charitable." The technique O. Henry uses here is to give the storyteller language typical of the central character, Soapy, the bum, as a way of mildly ironically mocking him. The language makes Soapy sound important, and indeed the irony of his character and situation is that although he is a bum, he acts as if he is of a high social status.
Indeed the character of Soapy is as important to this story as its ironic structure, in which every action that he takes creates a reaction opposite to the one he wishes. The basic irony of the story is that as long as Soapy is "free," that is, loose in the city, he is not free at all, because of the coming winter. However, if he were in prison, he would indeed be "free" to enjoy life without fear. However, Soapy does not want something for nothing; he is willing to pay for his room and board by going to some effort to commit an act that, according to the law, will get him in jail. He knows that what society calls charity is not charity at all, but that he will have to "pay" for philanthropy by being preached at and lectured to.
The additional problem, of course, is that although Soapy breaks the law, he does not act like a criminal. Moreover, although Soapy tries to be a "crook" there are real crooks out there, such as the umbrella thief, who thwart him, for he finds he cannot really steal from one who has already stolen. Finally, there are those, such as the streetwalker, who although they might not look as if they were outside the law, are indeed criminals; one cannot violate the legal rights of one who is outside the law.
Thus, Soapy seems "doomed to liberty." Of course, a story with an ironic, mocking tone such as this one, in which a bum who talks like a gentleman tries to get himself thrown into jail but continually fails, can only end one way. The ultimate irony of course is that Soapy, who does not want something for nothing and who goes to a great deal to get thrown into jail, finally does get thrown into jail for doing precisely nothing.
Two different film versions of "The Cop and the Anthem" provide an interesting contrast in treatment that reveals how much the comic in this story depends on the character of Soapy and the structure of the plot. One version appears in a full-length 1952 film entitled O. Henry's Full House. Charles Laughton plays Soapy and David Wayne plays the role of a companion invented to provide Soapy the opportunity for dialogue that is essential for film, but not needed in the story, for Laughton as Soapy talks like the narrator of O.Henry's story. (Marilyn Monroe has a brief part in this film as the streetwalker Soapy tries to pick up.)
The second version is a more recent one starring Robert Morse as Soapy. The Laughton portrayal seems appropriate to the kind of character that appears in the original story, complete with spats, bowler hat, and fancy language. In the more recent version Morse hams things up considerably; everything is exaggerated to the point that the comedy is dependent more on individual slapstick scenes than on the tight organization of the plot in the original story and the Laughton version. Morse's Soapy is not as elegant or dignified as Laughton's. Whereas Laughton's Soapy is quite knowledgeable about the quality of the food, the wine, and the cigar, Morse's Soapy is obviously not aware of these nuances. Thus, one version of the story depends on the comic effect of incongruity of character and ironic reversal of events, whereas the second version depends more on slapstick, keystone cops chases and silent movie piano music in the background.
Tomorrow: Joyce, "Araby"