‘A Bird of Bagdad’ by O. Henry: Short Story Analysis
The short story by O. Henry follows the usual ‘twist in the tale’ formula along with subplots that try to divert attention from the main core of the short story. ‘A Bird of Bagdad’ is the story about a restaurant owner who ran the restaurant by day to earn his daily bread and by night he spent his time as a so called follower of Caliph Harun Al Rashid and collected curiosities, met people, learned about them and then tried to bring succor to their distress. He roamed the streets calling himself the Prince of Bohemia. He carried cards from his restaurant along with him.
The man in question is Margrave Quigg, not a great achiever but out for adventure in his city. These cards are what I want to draw your attention to. They are to any person just jottings of orders or meal cards at the restaurant of Quigg. However, when read through the eyes of a person who is seeking wisdom and knowledge of an uncanny kind, Quigg believes these cards would help such a person to solve his quizzical problem. During his journey, on one particular night, Quigg meets up with Simmons, a young man who was literally tossing silver coins on the street while people were bending down to pick up his money. Quigg immediately realizes that the young gentlemen is in trouble, takes him aside and has a man to man chat with him. Simmons is hard-pressed for an answer regarding a certain riddle of his one true love Laura’s father. If Simmons solves the riddle, he gets Laura in marriage and whatever comes to her in monetary terms. If not, all is lost, and Laura will go to his nemesis Bill Watson. The riddle is very much of the Dutch like nature: ‘What kind of a hen lays the longest?’ There are many references to hens and the laying of eggs which is the O. Henry typical style of drawing away attention from the other side of word ‘lay’ – not just ‘laying of eggs’ BUT ‘laying down flat’. Thus O. Henry cleverly makes us focus our minds while reading the story about eggs when actually we should be thinking of laying down flat like a dead person. Margrave Quigg is also puzzled at the riddle, tries many intellectual ways to solve it which he does out of his self-proclaimed duty as the Prince of Bohemia and a follower of the Caliph Harun Al Rashid way. Unable to solve it, he hands over one of his cards to Simmons saying that on the day he truly needs it, he will come upon it and it will solve his problem. The card ironically comes into Simmons hands just when the old Dutchman father of Laura is asking him the fateful riddle. Upon it is written: ‘Good for one roast chicken to bearer’. It clicks instantly in Simmons’ mind that of course – the riddle was about a DEAD HEN, for only a dead hen lays down flat the longest. Let me also point out at this point that the Dutch to be father-in-law had mentioned to Simmons, that the answer to the riddle didn’t need an intellect but wisdom with a dash of a great ‘sense of humor’. Margrave Quigg tried his intelligence and not his wisdom and so he was not able to help Simmons – or did he?
This is what the reader of ‘A Bird of Bagdad’ is left with which is normally the case in all O. Henry stories, something to mull upon and maybe create a reason to contemplate upon, alone or with colleagues. Here, the question left with us is: Was Quigg aware about how to help Simmons or did his genuineness as a real believer in the Caliph somehow, ‘through divine intervention,’ work to Simmons’ advantage. I too wonder, whenever I read ‘A Bird of Baghdad’, whether it was the Caliph himself who brought about the understanding of that riddle into the mind of Simmons through the genuine hands of service, that is Quigg? Yes, many things to mull over, but that is something regular with O. Henry.
In conclusion, I want to leave you with certain points:
- The story is told from a white orientalist perspective and so in the modern perspective hurt the feelings of certain communities.
- The popularity of Caliph Harun Al Rashid and his way of life among the people of O. Henry’s time.
- The Caliph Harun Al Rashid was one of the Caliphs of Islam during the Golden Age of Islam.
- The lack of understanding and education of Simmons who thinks Al Rashid was the king mentioned in the Arabian Nights.
- The intellectual side of Quigg.
- The atmosphere developed of a world of academia, deep study, orientalism, antiques in the world of the modern America of the 20th century. This was created to give the setting for the tale.
- The title used as per the late 19th century style of having outlandish titles for stories which now is no longer being used.
- The restaurant cards as the divination props of this very unusual but clever tale.
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